The Problem with the Techno-Whataboutists

Why you can’t compare the smartphone to books

Jesse Weaver
OneZero
Published in
7 min readJan 9, 2020

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Photo: Freudenthal Verhagen/Getty Images

WeWe build a lot of technology and push it out into the world. When things go well, we rush to take credit for what we did. But when things go wrong, we hide our heads in the sand. This isn’t just about ignoring negative outcomes — it’s about maintaining the status quo.

Whenever I write a critical piece about technology and its impact on society, a certain kind of troll surfaces. I like to call them the “techno-whataboutist.” Their argument is always the same: “[some person] had the same concerns about [some established technology — the book, the printing press, TV, newspapers, radio, video games, cars] a long time ago, and things turned out just fine, so stop worrying.”

And it’s not just no-name, trolly commenters who run down this path. Nir Eyal pulled the same shenanigans in his piece about screens and their impact on kids. And Slate did an entire piece on the history of “media technology scares” — which, according to the author, didn’t pan out. In both cases, Slate and Eyal pulled out one of the techno-whataboutist’s favorite examples:

The Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner worried about handheld information devices causing ‘confusing and harmful’ consequences in 1565. The devices he was talking about were books.

On the surface, it’s easy to laugh at Gessner, but our relationship with technology and the way it impacts our world is complicated. Nothing is black and white. It’s all gray. If we ever hope to have a healthy, sustainable relationship with the things we create, we have to be willing to dive into those gray areas. The techno-whataboutist’s goal is to avoid all that.

Traditional whataboutism is the deployment of a logical fallacy designed “to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument.” For example, a traditional whataboutist might try to dismiss climate activism by calling out that Greta Thunberg still rides in cars (hypocrisy!). This kind of tactic was a favorite propaganda tool of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And while techno-whataboutism doesn’t portend hypocrisy, it represents the same kind of rhetorical diversion, one designed to act as a cudgel to beat…

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