I must admit that I am yet to read The Shallows by Nicolas Carr, this summer’s book to hate, but I have read some interesting reviews, particularly Scott Rosenberg’s. However, I notice that the book has been making the rounds in the British press (I assume Carr may be out promoting the book and giving interviews over here). Technophobia is a pet subject of mine, so I am intrigued enough that I have added to my growing “To Read” list. It would be unfair to comment until I have read it, but I am starting to get an idea of one of the themes in the book from reading the reviews and interviews. Technology is changing our brains, and this is a bad thing.
This is a common theme in technophobic commentary. Technology is changing the way we do X, and that is a bad thing. Technology is making X obsolete, and that is a bad thing. Take this article in The Observer about GPS, Google Maps and OpenStreetMap, which seems to celebrate the new technologies, but at the same time complains that digital maps will spell the demise of old and beautiful map-making such as the ones showcased by the British Library in their Magnificent Maps exhibition. The argument is that everyone is using GPS and other digital maps, so nobody will put time and effort into producing detailed and beautiful maps. That is true, but so what?
Don’t get me wrong, I love maps. When reading ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ as a child, I used to plot the routes followed by the protagonists around the globe in my parent’s beautiful Atlas. One of the delights of reading The Lord of the Rings was to look at Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth. Nonetheless, these maps were expensive, inefficient and often inaccurate. We have replaced something that is visually appealing with something functional. The conflict here is not between the old and the new, but the conflict between artistic expression and mundane functionality. Old maps have gained the status of art, they are useless in a functional manner other than for historic purposes. This is fine, we might look at old maps and wonder at their aesthetic and historic value. But nowadays we need functional maps. Will future generations be poorer for the lack of artistic map-making? Maybe, but there is so much art being made nowadays that I do not think this will really be important. Perhaps our modern digital map-making will one day be considered artistic. xkcd’s classic Map of the Online Communities comes to mind.
So do not mourn old technologies and embrace the new. Personally, I don’t know how I ever managed before ever-present GPS on my phone.