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A Skeptical Scholar

 untitled (5) Frank Smith, Director, Books, at JSTOR spoke today at a symposium honoring the outgoing Director of Temple University Press, Alex Holzman.

Smith began by talking about a new technology that had come along and was expected, basically, to put print out of business. He did not at first name the technology, in a sneaky attempt to fool the audience into thinking he was going in the obvious direction of invoking the print vs. “e” debate. But no—the technology to which Smith was referring is microfilm. And for his audience, made up mostly of scholarly publishers and librarians, the significance of microfilm, even to this day, was, shall we say, a no-brainer.untitled (6)

On a broader level, what Smith was telling his audience was that “we continuously mislead ourselves about the potential for technology to change our lives.” Was being able to store fragile, sensitive, and bulky materials on microfilm a tremendously helpful development? Yes. Is the technology still in use and still useful? Yes. Did it change the way we read and write and research? Some, but really, not so much, according to Smith (who notes that even in this day and age, microfilm readers are awkward to use).

With the digital tumult we are currently experiencing, we are, says Smith, “in the grip of futurology.” We should shake off our obsession with the new, he suggests. Smith notes that many, if not most, of the inventions we use on a day-to-day basis are not actually new—they’ve been around for some time. That obviously doesn’t apply to some of tools we most frequently rely upon—smartphones and iPads, for example—but when I think of the other technology that gets me through the day—microwave oven, cordless phone, ATM card—it’s not brand new.

A friend recently sent me a poster that quoted news sources bemoaning how technology was ruining the fabric of our society, and it turned out these complaints came from newspapers going back to the 19th century and they were referring to inventions like cheap and rapid newspaper printing, “artificial locomotion,” and airmail. The more things change, the more they really do stay the same.

I’m not saying new technologies like ebooks and search engines don’t have the potential to create significant change, nor do I think that is what Smith is saying. I’m just saying: the sky isn’t falling, Chicken Little. Smith says we can’t ignore new technology, but we should be more skeptical about its promise. That sounds like sage advice.

Now I’m going to go read a book.

Author: Lynn Rosen

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