Internet as Conscience

Internet as Conscience

photo of man with binoculars

Thanks, ºNit Soto, for licensing your CCFlickr photo (binoculars) for remix.

Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking. —H.L. Mencken

For this invention [writing] will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. (Egyptian King Thamus to Theuth, as told by Socrates. Plato’s Phaedrus, section 275a-b)

Sounds familiar, right?

Strip out the cast of characters, replace the word writing with Internet and you have the premise of several best-selling books and well-regarded articles. You also have the complaint and worry we share as parents, educators, politicians, thinkers, and doers.


The Internet is not making us stupid. Smart is not making us dumb.

Nicholas Carr, Evgeny Morozov, and others disagree. They are the Socrates of our age. This comparison works for me in a couple ways. First, I may not agree completely with Carr and Morozov, but value their dialectic approach to this latest era of change. Second, Socrates was no dummy, but he was as skeptical of the written word as Carr is of the Internet. (To be fair, Morozov usually ends with a more balanced, if cynical, view.)

I don’t believe we are becoming more stupid than we were already. I don’t think filter bubbles and self-selection bias are more troubling now than before. I have evolving views on digital dualism, augmented reality, and the singularity. But…in a fit of Pollyanna, I have hopes the Internet and increased connectedness are making us more aware, or maybe even kinder, or at least more tolerant.

So far, I have to doubt my own thesis as much as I doubt Carr’s and Morozov’s. For each step forward (the kindness of a stranger caught on YouTube or clean water for millions via viral campaign), there are as many steps back—or steps sideways, perhaps.

King Thamus chided Theuth for his elixir of reminding, warning his pupils would be, “for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” Morozov says it more eloquently in his Twitter bio: “There are idiots. Look around.” That, if nothing else, is true.

Mencken’s view on the conscience becomes even more relevant now. We’ve moved beyond somebody may be looking to somebody is probably looking…and filming. Cases in point:

Dateline: March 2013, Oregon

University of Oregon adjunct law professor James L. Olmsted was arrested following a confrontation that turned physical. The professor was being an ass—and that was before he crossed any legal lines. It was caught on video (of course…duh).

Dateline: February 2013, Bangkok

DKNY used Humans of New York photos in a window display, even after HoNY’s Brandon Stanton had turned down their licensing request. He heard about it from a fan. “Every time one of my photos get picked up, I get notified about it.”

Dateline: January 2013, St. Louis

Pastor Alois Bell wrote a snarky message on an Applebee’s receipt. “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” A photo of the receipt went viral. Religious debate ensued; people were fired; and, I’m guessing one Pastor Alois Bell wanted to crawl in a hole.

Dateline: Pick a Year, Washington D.C.

Politician __________ did something stupid and left a digital footprint of it. Insert Anthony Weiner—pun not intended (well, maybe)—or John Ensign or….

So, just as I don’t blame the Internet for making us stupid, I admit I can’t expect it to be our conscience. Sadly, Morozov is right. There are idiots. I guess my question now is are there more or fewer than the pre-Internet days?


Tekhne – Artful Technology, Article 1 (Intro)

Tekhne – Artful Technology, Article 1 (Intro)


Hay Baler, circa 1944

The following is from a series of articles I wrote for the education section of the Central Oregonian.

From Tekhnē to Technology….

Quick! What’s the definition of the word technology? How many of our immediate responses included a reference to machines or computer systems? iPod? Cell phone? Internet? Okay. Now, how many of us thought wheel? Railroad? Hay baler? Art?

I have to admit, I was in the first group – if you hear me say the word technology, it’s a safe bet that I’m talking computers or networks. So, as I sat down to write this article, I needed to do some research on the history and meaning of the word technology. I logged into the Oxford English Dictionary, the granddaddy of all language resources, and had to read the definition three times before I could believe my eyes:

Technology: A discourse or treatise on an art or arts; the scientific study of the practical or industrial arts.

The root of our modern word technology has descended from the Greek word tekhnē, which means art, craft, or skill. Great, now I have to do some more research because when I hear or read the word art, I think of paintings, sculpture, music, film and so on. I do not think of motherboards and routers, software programs and Web sites. And I certainly do not cuss at the annual Nutcracker performance (even in its off years) like I do at my computer when it freezes.

The word art, as you may have guessed, has meanings too numerous to reproduce here, so I chose one that fits nicely with our topic.

Art: A practical application of any science; a body or system of rules serving to facilitate the carrying out of certain principles. In this sense often contrasted with science.

I especially liked the 19th century observation of Scottish economist John R. McCulloch, included alongside the OED’s definition, “Agriculture is little known as a science in any part of America, and but imperfectly understood as an art.” Aha – now it’s starting to make sense. Technology, like perhaps our earlier agriculture, is an art, but we’ve forgotten that somewhere along the way. Or, at least I have. There are too many computer systems and languages, too many new, great, must-have gadgets, too many Web sites to track and online services to subscribe to.

I want to be good at my job, which involves technology; I want to be a productive local and global citizen, which involves technology; I want to be able to communicate with and understand my sons when they are old enough to run circles around me on computers, cell phones, and video game systems, which involves technology. But…I also want to have time enough left over to enjoy the outdoors, goof off with my family, read a great novel and try new BBQ recipes.

So the future of this column will be dedicated to just that – technology as an art that complements our lives, not complicates them (remember the phrase practical application from the definition of art?). I’ll wade through the hundreds of tips, tricks, processes, and gadgets to find the best ones to share. The ones that stick; the ones that are simple; the ones that are enjoyable.

Artful Technology.

Together, maybe we can weave technology into our lives in a manner that approaches another definition of the word art:

Art: A pursuit or occupation in which skill is directed towards the gratification of taste or production of what is beautiful.