Books,  Web/Tech

Be a debaser

It's a boring truism that nearly every new technology is decried by certain parties (certain newspapers, self-appointed guardians of social mores, etc) as fundamentally undermining the fabric of society. From the first wave of communication and broadcast technology – radio, television, and telephones all had their dystopian critics. From my generation the social evil was the home video recorder. What havoc it would wreak, our juvenile minds rotted by video nasties, and our social skills stunted by spending all our times in front of screens. And of course come the PC and internet we've had enough scare stories about games, social networking, and hell, the internet as a whole, to leave us in no doubt that we used to have a Camelot and then naughty technology came along and rent us asunder from it.

The underlying theme to all these stories (pick any recent Twitter scare story as an example) is technology debases us. Debase = 'To reduce from a higher
to a lower state or grade of worth, dignity, purity, station, etc'. The obvious flaw in this argument is that we don't measure the 'higher' state often enough to know if any 'lowering' has actually occurred. But even if this were so (say we measured a lowering of literacy rates, lower book sales or some other measure), what it never captures is the transformative effect on society – the new ways we develop for communicating, and if humans are anything they are communicators.

What this is leading to is that perceived debasement from supposed higher states is a precursor for significant change. In education we hold on to the arguments of quality and academic reliability, which although surely important, become obstacles to any change. I am reminded of the Jonathan Swift quote, which gave the title to John Kennedy Toole's excellent novel: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." 

For technology this would be rephrased something like "When significant technology appears in society, you may know it by this sign, that the guardians will call it a debaser." So, the next time someone raises an objection about your use of technology that they are concerned about quality, or standards, thank them heartily, for you will know you are on the right track.

Debasers, I salute you!


  • Martyn Cooper

    I have long argued that technologies are neutral it is how we use them that can either be edifying of “debasing”. We need to take responsibility for our actions – we have choices – we are the moral agents not the technologies.

  • Martin

    @Eric – have you seen the Pixies documentary (loudQUIETloud)? Haven’t myself, must track it down.
    @Martyn – I don’t buy the technology is neutral argument myself. Sure, technology can’t do anything by itself and on a basic level requires people to be a moral agent, but technology has an impact. To take an obvious example, guns are designed to kill people, that’s their purpose, so more guns in society roughly equals more violent crime. To take it to extreme, imagine I am an evil genius and have invented the ‘world death ray’. There’s not much ‘neutral’ about this.
    @Alan – oh, don’t worry, I can go a lot lower than this 😉

  • Scott Leslie

    You may want to run down the etymology of “debase” even further as it has some interesting origins, originally referring to the practice of lowering the value of currency by gradually removing some of the metal content from coins. I don’t know *exactly* where to go with that, but it’s always been a term of interest for me.
    And the Pixies are Dead. Long live the Pixies.

  • Martin

    @Scott – yes, I saw this. I guess I could argue that in educational terms we are seen as lowering the currency of education by altering the basic composition (of the curriculum, undergrad degree, only academic produced content, etc). Would need to find an example though of how this debasing wasn’t just robbing by other means and had some democratising function?

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