Information scares and the media: a history

Slate has just published an article I wrote on how media scare stories that warn us that technology will damage the mind have been with us from the time of the printing press and continue to the present day.

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both “confusing and harmful” to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an “always on” digital environment. It’s worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That’s not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.

My favourite chapter in the long history of how information dissemination has been assumed to damage the mind is the protracted debate that occurred when schools became compulsory.

They were thought to take children away from their ‘natural’ development and study was widely considered to be a danger, with many medical texts of the time citing excessive study as the cause of madness (e.g. this one)

Interestingly, the relatively recent diagnosis of ADHD is almost the reverse, and not being able to concentrate on school work is now considered a mental illness.

That’s not to say that all technology and all uses of technology are harmless. For example, there is growing evidence that television viewing by young children is associated with slowed cognitive development but the media is typically obsessed with the newest technology rather than the actual risks identified by health studies.

Link to Slate article on tech scares and the media.

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