With great technology comes great responsibility

The other day I sat in a fast food restaurant listening to the gentle din of humanity. At one booth, a young mother struggled with a toddler. The scene brought back somewhat recent memories for me and my wife.

An older woman stopped at this woman’s table to give unsolicited advice. My eyes widened, however, when I overheard her suggestion. 

“Do you have Facebook?” she asked. “Well, if you do, you should look on there. They say how to get your child to listen to you.” 

That’s all. Just “look on Facebook.” Considering what I’ve seen on Facebook just since this morning, I would classify that as one of the few things that could actually make this problem worse.

I don’t doubt that this other woman saw something useful on her Facebook feed, but she couldn’t name it, nor could she explain how she found it. That, in summary, is the problem with how most of us gather and share information nowadays.

Every day I see people being duped online. They interact earnestly with accounts that are either bots or trolls. They accept friend requests from accounts mimicking people they know or implausibly attractive people they don’t know. Even well-informed people share opinion or marketing content as though it were news. That’s just a start. In truth, a list of ways in which people are duped online could go for miles. 

And it’s not that people are dumb, though we must always remember that half of all humans are below average. It’s just that we’re too trusting, too susceptible to suggestion, and often too biased to see through the schemes. Other times, we’re just too overwhelmed to tell fact from fiction. 

I spent months fighting a case of identity theft several years ago. This opened my eyes to how even a minor mistake online can cause a world of harm. Again, that’s not counting the ways that being duped affects our assumptions, beliefs and, eventually, our whole personality. First we read the meme, then we speak the meme, then we are the meme.

We use information technology because it’s cool, useful and and emotionally provocative. But, to paraphrase Spiderman’s long-suffering Uncle Ben, with great technology comes great responsibility.

This isn’t a new problem. One-hundred years ago, people like us were excited about new technology, too. It’s just that the fancy tech came in the form of unwieldy radio sets and new-fangled antennae installed at the apex of the tallest buildings in town.

It was June 7, 1922, just before the grand opening of the new Hibbing High School. Contractors rushed to complete the main educational wing of the school, built to accommodate a fast-growing immigrant community. The ornate auditorium and massive swim tank would be finished the following year. The scene inspired young and old alike to imagine a rich and prosperous future for this small mining town perched on the Northwestern frontier.

The concept of radio was new to the village of Hibbing, so new that most residents of the town hadn’t even heard a broadcast before. Radios were playthings of the rich and strange, a novelty of little importance to the town’s working class majority.

But the educators of Hibbing saw the benefit of radio for the students of tomorrow. In imagining an unparalleled new school, they sought an expert’s advice for how to install a powerful radio receiver on the roof and teach students to use it.

Cyril M. Jansky

Cyril M. Jansky, Jr., long after his talk to Hibbing students about a remarkable new invention called radio.

Professor Cyril M. Jansky, Jr., was the head of the radio engineering department at the University of Minnesota. The young intellectual, soon to turn 28, arrived in Hibbing that Wednesday to give a public lecture on the future of this new technology. His words would inform the new high school and junior college’s philosophy toward radio and influence the curriculum.

The Hibbing Daily Tribune reported on Jansky’s talk. Paraphrasing in a June 8, 1922 article, they reported that Jansky “said there are two types of engineers, ‘the push button engineers’ and the real engineers.”

Jansky said the “push button engineers” were “those who are able only to apply formulas but are unable to attack new problems.”

Rather, Jansky encouraged the school to foster critical thinking in its students. 

“In order to be real engineers,” the Tribune paraphrased, “he said that they must be able to attack new problems as they arise.” 

Jansky said these engineers “push on the boundary of science.” They “must be able to make comprehensive reports and must be able to stand on their feet and explain to an audience their plans.” 

That’s why Jansky’s most strident message that day was not about radio, but rhetoric. Students, he said, should learn public speaking and rhetoric — the study of persuasion — in order to become truly competent radio listeners and broadcasters.

Jansky would go on to help shape the 1927 Radio Act through expert testimony. Some of his suggestions were practical. For instance, he said that radio frequencies and wattage should be regulated to prevent interference.

But just like his talk in Hibbing five years earlier, Jansky also gave philosophical guidance. He argued that political broadcasts should give equal time to opposing perspectives to preserve fairness. This, he implied, would prevent powerful owners from using political broadcasts to shape public opinion. 

It’s worth noting that the “push button” engineering principles remain in effect today, but the critical thinking provided by the equal time provision? That was gutted decades ago.

School leaders showed remarkable forethought by inviting Professor Janksy to Hibbing in 1922. That they actually incorporated his suggestions shows why Hibbing and other Iron Range schools became known for innovative educational programming. That’s why the sons and daughters of immigrant miners became doctors, lawyers, orchestral musicians and successful entrepreneurs — with no shortage of engineers, either.

When we approach our computers, tablets and phones today, ask yourself, am I just pushing buttons? Or, am I consciously evaluating the words I read and write online?

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 24, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Bob Carlson says

    Wow, one of your best columns! This should be required reading for everyone!

  2. herbert davis says

    public speaking …not publish speaking

    yes a great article…thank you

    I’ll buy the book

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