Technology and Moral Panics


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I was recently asked to speak with our local weather reporter, Ben Dery, for a broadcast feature story on “technology and eyesight.” Before we began our conversation, Ben asked me over e-mail, “how much time is too much to be on a computer or tablet?”  While he spoke with a local optometrist about the eyesight angle, Ben was curious about how I would answer this question as an anthropologist studying technology practices.

A little bit of my response ended up in the story, but I wanted to flesh out my thinking on this question, as it has meaningful implications for the intersections between society and technology, the body and everyday practices.  I’m really interested in what this question (how much time is too much to be on a device?) says about our society.  It indicates that we are worried about technology. We are concerned that we are spending too much time looking at screens. This is a popular topic of discussion in the public sphere, though not so much when we as individuals are immersed in our screens. We don’t tend to reflect on how much time we are spending on computers, tablets, and smart phones while we are on them. The cultural and historical moment we occupy is one characterized by this concern about the very technologies in which we lose ourselves so deeply that the machines and motions, the embodiments and engagements readily become naturalized.

But as such, this historical moment is not particularly new.  Human societies and public intellectuals have often expressed fears about new technologies. In the 1930s, radio was thought to be overstimulating for both adults and children, interfering with children’s homework and preventing them from sleeping well. In the 16th century, public intellectuals stated that the printing press would unleash overwhelming amounts of information that would be harmful to the mind. The ancient greek philosopher Socrates warned that writing would create “forgetfulness of the soul.”

Sound familiar?

It’s interesting, too, that Ben found in his conversation with the optometrist that the impact of device screens on eyesight was negligible.  Most myopia is genetic and isn’t really effected by how much time you spend looking at screens.  So, what exactly is this fear all about?

Stanley Cohen popularized the term moral panic in the social sciences in his now classic Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972). While Cohen was talking about subcultural groups (the mods and rockers of his monograph), he did point to the notion that threats to the social order often stimulate popular culture and news media rhetorics of alarm and anxiety, often based in exaggeration. So are we experiencing a moral panic around new technologies in contemporary cultural formations in which those technologies are integral to daily practices? Is your iPhone threatening “the social order”? Do you perceive it that way or is broadcast television raising alarms over questions (technology and eyesight) that aren’t ultimately that alarming?

Cultural moments occupied by fear or at least significant worry and anxiety, are interesting to think with.  I find myself curious about the circumstances under which technology suddenly becomes “natural.”  And about our capacity to remember when it was not.  Why do books, papers, notebooks, even pencils seem more “natural” to us than tablets, laptops, and smart phones?

A pencil was and remains a powerful technology. Ultimately, technology is about the ways we use tools, the ways we accomplish tasks, the things we make, do, and think. Technology isn’t new, but we have to be willing to reflect on our own discomforts and anxieties about the role it plays in our daily lives.


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