The Ego As A Mechanism of Progress

One of the most universal and predictable bromides, spoken by people of all temperaments and political persuasions, in reply to any contemporary warning about the societal dangers inherent in this or that significant change in information technology, educational norms, economic relations, popular entertainment, or public mores: “But that’s what they said about X back in the day.” This rejoinder is meant to carry the force of a rhetorical question to which the obvious answer is (supposedly) no.

“That’s what they said about universal public schooling. It was going to become a tool of mass stupidity and mass indoctrination to the goals and social functions desired by the government, and weaken the family and community attachments that are the very roots of civil society. Well did it?”

“That’s what they said about the electronic calculator. It was going to thwart the learning of basic calculation skills, and supposedly stunt the development of logical thinking. Well did it?”

“That’s what they said about the motion picture. It was going to weaken the taste for the kind of literate drama and poetic language that was the heartbeat of civilization and human understanding, and reduce the imagination to the level of the literal and superficial. Well did it?”

“That’s what they said about television. It was going to turn us into idle and isolated creatures without any feeling for community, and palliate us with a passive amusement, killing wasted hours that would previously have been spent meeting friends, talking with family, teaching children, or engaging in productive private activities of one sort or another. Well did it?”

“That’s what they said about the pop music from our generation. It was going to weaken morals and intellectual subtlety by reducing music to its basest and most primitive sexual and tribal elements, thus stunting emotional development and encouraging a pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed view of life, love, and happiness. Well did it?”

“That’s what they said about the internet. It was going to distract us all from learning and self-development by elevating factual information above knowledge, immediate gratification above learning and deep understanding, speed above patient effort, and a superficial illusion of universality above genuine human contact and attachment. Well did it?”

“That’s what they said about the smartphone. It was going to destroy privacy, addicting people to an unproductive rabbit hole of navel-gazing, time-wasting virtual reality in place of the genuine experience and wisdom possible only by engaging with real reality. Well did it?”

Again, the last part of each of these “That’s what they said” responses is typically left unspoken, although all the rhetorical weight is carried there, in the unspoken explanation. I have added the unspoken rhetoric in each case here, in order to make the implicit explicit, so that one may approach these intimidating, mocking interjections afresh, reading them for once with na├»ve directness, which is to say not as rhetorical questions but simply as questions.

And so, taking off the blinders of self-protective convenience, the ego-preserving rose-colored mirrors that give these rhetorical questions their force by exploiting the hearer’s natural vanity — to answer “yes” would be to concede that I am susceptible to the soul-diminishing results that “they said” would come of these various triumphs of modern progress — let us answer these questions, for once, with the honesty of souls detached from all the vested interests of ego and shame.

“Well did it?”

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