Someone posted a meme-like pic to Facebook with the purported quote by Albert Einstein "I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots." There is a picture of a sagely Einstein with his hands folded above another picture of cute teenage girls using Smartphones. The implication is that all these young women would be interacting with one another but for something called technology which the sagely Einstein feared would surpass said interaction. Whatever that means.
My immediate reaction was to suspect the quote. It doesn't sound like Einstein to me at all. Plus it's just too perfect for the picture, right? And sure enough, it's most likely that the real Albert Einstein never said anything of the kind. Quote Investigator has the skinny, here's an excerpt:
I was suspicious of this attribution and when I searched the internet I found another similar saying credited to Einstein in a web forum. This statement was also illustrated with an image of people staring at cell phone screens.
I fear the day when the technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots.
I have a different fear. I fear the day that individuals will believe that Einstein actually made one of these inane statements. Could you examine these sayings?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made either of these statements. Neither appears in the comprehensive collection of quotations “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1
Both versions given by the questioner were in circulation in 2012. For example, a website called answerbag.com presented a version of the saying in a message with an attached date of October 21, 2012: 2
So it looks like I wasn't the first person to suspect/debunk this. This kind of goofiness disguised as wisdom just hits a nerve with me. If it sound like something Wendell Berry would say, the chances are very slim that a thoughtful person would say it.
But there's another aspect of this attempt to be clever that bothers me even more. If, about 15 years ago, you saw a bunch of businessmen standing around in Grand Central with their heads down reading magazines and newspapers before the morning commute, is your first thought really "These people are idiots who are eschewing human interaction!"? No. But what is the difference between them and the young ladies with cellphones? The newspaper and magazines are products of technology, just older technology. They put the town criers out of business just like the internet is putting them out of business now. Plus ça change.
The business man reading the newspaper instead of talking to his temporary neighbor at the terminal might be a callous manipulator who doesn't care whom he tramples, but no one can tell that by seeing him reading the paper or doing the crossword for that matter. He might be reading the paper before work so he has more time to interact with other humans throughout the day. Likewise the girls in the photo may be checking emails from their parents before an outing together, who knows?
Sure, it's irritating to see people using cell phones at inappropriate times, but blaming this on "technology" is to miss the real problems of intemperance, absentmindedness and all varieties of rudeness which have always existed. I have a friend who said that his father would spread out the Sunday paper on a kitchen table and you weren't allowed to talk to him until he'd read the entire thing. Only then could you even ask him for the comic section. Sorry, but that's anti-social behavior, no batteries required.
AND there is another aspect of this which many are not going to notice. It's sort of ironic and funny to me that this meme picture couldn't even be generated without the widespread proliferation of technology, let alone broadcasted all over social media and blogs. Photography is technology, people. And the fact that it captures a moment in time should be taken into account. Otherwise the following photo would represent the complete lapse of human interaction as much as a photo of girls using smartphones.
There has been a lot of good writing about curbing cell-phone use, like this one about not using phones in business meetings. I hope more people take that kind of good advice, but I also hope people don't lose their common sense in their over-zealousness to fight real abuses. If I whip out my iPhone while we're talking without saying "excuse me" then you have a legitimate beef about my bwhovior. But if you come upon me while I'm looking at my phone it doesn't mean I don't want to interact with you. Or talk to you.