A history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook.

By chronicling a history of responses to technological developments, Vaughn Bell in his article “Don’t Touch That Dial!”, attempts to address anxieties about the introduction of new communication technologies and their effects on cognition. It’s an interesting reminder that we have been worrying about these issues for a long time and the article also makes for some interesting parallels but there are far more differences than similarities between the way we consume information today than in the past.

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.
Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.

I think he’s missed the literature detailing internet addiction and the effects of multi-tasking on IQ and data retention.
Slate: Don’t Touch That Dial!


  • Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.