How To Recognize When Tech Is Leading Us Down a ‘Slippery Slope’

Does a new technology pose serious dangers — or are we just overreacting? Philosopher Evan Selinger has some ideas on how to tell the two apart.

Clive Thompson
OneZero
Published in
10 min readOct 15, 2021

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“Toboganning”, by Mike Dunens

When people worry about the impact of a new technology, often they worry it’ll set us on a path to ruin.

Sometimes they’re freaking out for no good reason. New technologies — particularly ones that affect communication, or give young people new abilities — unsettle people all the time, but don’t wreck the world. In the past, people worried that the telephone would destroy face-to-face conversation, that the portable camera would destroy all public privacy, and that pinball would turn kids into delinquents.

In each case, critics worried that the new technology would make people’s behavior a bit worse, and then that change would cause even more bad results, and on and on. We’d be on a “slippery slope” to ruin! (Indeed, cities like New York actually banned pinball for forty years — from the mid-30s to the mid-70s.)

This is why, in the worlds of philosophy and technology, “slippery slope” arguments are often regarded as kind of flimsy. Often, critics are just personally miffed by the new behaviors midwived by technology. But no social ruin is at hand.

Sometimes, though, a slippery slope is real. In the early days of the automobile, some critics feared cars would take over city streets — and that we’d get so addicted to car travel that we’d rebuild the whole country around cars. Those critics nailed it. That really did happen. The same thing goes with Facebook or other social media; some early critics (like the philosopher Ian Bogost) predicted they’d poison social and civic life. Again: Nailed it.

But how do you tell the difference? How do you know when you’re facing a technology that might lead us down a real slippery slope — versus a tech that you’re just annoyed by?

I spoke to my friend the philosopher Evan Selinger about this. He’s written for years about the…

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Clive Thompson
OneZero

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net