Several years ago, I spotted some volumes from a Franco-Belgian comics series called XIII in a bookstore in Paris. I didn’t have the money or the room in my suitcase to start reading them then, but I recently discovered that the series is available (in the original French!) through Amazon Kindle, so I’ve been working my way through the series on my iPad.
A couple of panels from the second volume stood out to me as I was reading them for the first time. As befits a good spy series, the amnesiac hero is trying to rediscover his past with only a cryptic photo and a handful of clues to help him out. Fortunately, his nephew (or is he?) is something of a computer whiz, and with the aid of five search terms and a magic pen that lets him input the photo into his computer by simply tracing the outlines, our intrepid hero is able to find the place that he’s looking for.
The thing that gets me about this scene is the way the nephew introduces the idea of using a computer: “We’re in the twentieth century, you know.” It’s a classic, “get with the times” rebuke that’s gentle, but clear: The past is dead, long live the present, for it alone can give us truth! I feel like this is a common line of reasoning in both educational technology and ethics, two fields that are important to me. We all assume that the past is useless (or outright wrong) and that the present is the way of the future. The morals and machines of even just a few years ago are often seen as automatically inferior to those that exist today. It should be clear from the computer pictured above, though, just how absurd this reasoning can be.
After all, the “get with the times” rebuke might have stung in 1985, when this volume first came out, but the computer in the panel looks old to anyone reading this 30 years later (not to mention the fact that being in the twentieth century is now “a bad thing”). Not only that, but the comic is grotesquely overconfident in the power of the computers of 1985 (not to mention the laser aesthetic surgery of 1985, but that’s a story for another time): I’m willing to bet that not even today’s Google could find a remote, even podunk, American town based off of five search terms and a picture. While we often have reason to pat ourselves on the back for how much ethical or technological progress we’ve made since [insert date here], we should also be careful to exercise a great deal of humility. After all, no matter how enlightened we think we are, our grandkids are likely to think of us as backwards-minded and technology-deprived.
So, whether we’re talking virtues or video quality, why don’t we consider taking time out of the picture? After all, what makes a technology good is less about how recently it came out and more about how well it carries out its purpose. Likewise, an ethical attitude isn’t bad just because it’s old; rather, we need to demonstrate that it’s flawed before we toss it out. Rather than worrying about being on the right side of technological or ethical history, let’s just focus on being right.