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Mobile phones and the right side of history
How public opinion changes
I think we will look back on the way mobile phones are used now the way we look back on how people smoked cigarettes in the past.
You look at old films of public transport, workplaces and average homes from the 1950s and it is astonishing how such an unhealthy habit was such a central and unthinking part of society. It’s a reminder that what is normal in one generation can look abnormal to another. I think there’s every chance that the relationship many of us have with mobile phones today will come to seem quite abnormal in years to come.
So I was really interested to see this week's announcement by the UK Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, that phones are to be banned in schools in England. It's only non-statutory guidance, many schools do this already, and those who don't are free to ignore it.
But it's still pretty striking as a sign of the way the wind is blowing. About ten years ago, I remember pointing out some of the problems with phones in the classroom, and the reaction was as if it was 1955 and I’d suggested banning smoking in pubs. Back then, phone bans were seen as exacerbating the digital divide and preventing students from getting the jobs of the future. Now, people are more likely to worry that unlimited access to phones will give students the mental health problems of the future. There has been a lot of discussion about the policy this week, but it has not really been about the substantive issue; rather, it’s been about whether phone bans are something the government should be responsible for.
It’s always fascinating to see how views change on issues like this. Ten years ago, if you proposed a similar policy you were seen as a Luddite on the wrong side of history, but now it looks like classroom phone bans are on the right side of history.
Modern technology and the right side of history
“The right side of history” is a phrase you hear a lot applied a lot to modern technology. But how do we know what the right side of history is?
I quite enjoy playing a parlour game where I ask friends what other things they would put into this category. What are the things we do today that we will look back on and say ‘what were we thinking?’ I have a note on my phone with over 100 suggestions. Some of the most popular / controversial suggestions: eating meat, playing rugby, watching rugby, cash, sitting down at desks, sleep, Test match cricket. (I don’t agree with all of these but I do find them interesting to think about).
As this should make clear, 'the right side of history' is not that straightforward. But it is a very persuasive rhetorical technique, and it is one that is quite popular with millennials. It’s also quite closely related to another millennial preoccupation - the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).
Here is a brilliant example: in 2022 the cryptocurrency company FTX made an expensive advert starring Larry David that essentially combined the 'right side of history' / FOMO memes. In the advert, Larry David plays a succession of characters throughout history who have dismissed great innovations.
The punchline is: crypto is just like the wheel, the flushing toilet, coffee, the lightbulb, the dishwasher. If you get involved with it, you will be on the right side of history and make yourself a ton of money. If you don't, you will be on the wrong side of history and will have to 'enjoy being poor'.
The actual real-life punchline is: less than a year after this advert first aired, FTX went bankrupt in the biggest bankruptcy case the world has ever seen. Many people lost their life savings. Right now, it looks like crypto is on the wrong side of history.
So should we just retire the phrase ‘right side of history’?
As we can see from this, anyone with a new technology is going to compare it to the lightbulb and say it’s the future. That doesn’t mean it is. Ultimately, anyone saying something is ‘the right side of history’ is just making a prediction. They might be right, or they might be wrong.
Still, I think there is some use to the phrase in that it forces you to have a wider perspective and to think about things in a bigger historical frame of reference. But it needs to be used with care. Here are some principles for thinking about new technologies and the future.
One: Some new technologies succeed. Some don’t.
Inevitably, we remember the technological innovations that succeeded. But we forget the ones that failed, or that didn’t live up to their original promise. We remember the internet and the internal combustion engine and the aeroplane. We don’t remember airships and spiritualism and segways, because by definition we are not using them every day.
Similarly, it’s easy to remember pessimistic predictions that were wrong, and to laugh at them. Lord Kelvin said powered flight was impossible and IBM that there was only a market for 5 computers. Oh how silly of them! But again, there are plenty of pessimistic predictions that were right, and again by definition you don’t even remember them. Plenty of people were sceptical about spiritualism in the late 19th century. So far, they have been proven right - but we don’t remember them.
Spiritualism is obviously a pseudoscience, but even more legitimate technologies can sometimes struggle to get to the point where they have genuinely useful applications. People have been trying and failing to get fusion reactors to generate energy at scale for the best part of a century. Blockchains are a genuinely sophisticated and impressive technology that are currently struggling to find a useful application and have attracted a lot of grifters.
At No More Marking, we have been carrying out a lot of research into Large Language Models and the similarities with crypto are painful. Many of the twitter accounts that were breathlessly promoting crypto a few years ago have seamlessly pivoted to explaining how you can “10x in 10 months with 10 ChatGPT hacks.” It is too early to say whether LLMs can improve education at scale, but we think there are reasons to proceed cautiously.
Two: Not everything is like smoking
I used the smoking analogy at the start of this piece, but it has a lot of flaws. The smoking policy debate is exceptionally unusual. Cigarette smoking has so many definite downsides, and so few upsides. Most similar debates are about things that have way more upsides and where the downsides may not yet be as definite. As much as I think we’re right to ban mobile phones in schools, they have way more upsides than cigarettes and so managing them is much trickier than managing cigarettes.
Three: ‘History’ is provisional, not a final judgement
In some ways, I think we can see our preoccupation with technology and ‘the right side of history’ as an attempt to replace the grand religious and political narratives of the past. It’s hard now to ground ultimate truths in God or ideology, so instead we ground them in ‘the future’. But what is ‘history’ or ‘posterity’ or ‘the future’? Just more people like us and their opinions! They won’t be right about everything any more than we are. Again, I started this piece by saying that banning mobiles is the right side of history, and certainly the idea is more popular now than it was ten years ago, but who is to say that trajectory will continue? Maybe in the next ten years we will find ways to mitigate or live with their worst effects. Maybe things that we think are bad now about mobiles will come to be normalised. For example, one of the things I dislike about mobiles is the way that spending a lot of time on them leads people to a state of semi-permanent anxious distraction. It feels to me that this an objectively bad thing. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe future generations will conclude that actually that’s preferable to the minor low-level boredom of a world where you aren’t glued to your mobile all the time.
Four: We have agency
The worst thing about the ‘right side of history’ idea is that it seems to strip away human agency. “History” and “technology” become arbitrary external powers we have to submit to. But that’s not true. As individuals and societies, we have power and agency. We can choose whether to embrace, ban, or regulate new technologies, and we can choose to change our minds when the facts change. And we can make those choices based on our values and evidence, not on the assumption that everything new is a message from the future.
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