Technological advancements have made life easier and more complicated, professor Stephen Kern said in a recent presentation.

‘Internet age’ has increased accessibility, but also accelerated the pace of life, says researcher

The myriad ways that technology has fueled the accelerating pace of life in the 21st century was the subject of a virtual presentation on March 25 by Ohio State University. Center for Historical Research

In the ‘Pace in the Internet Age’ presentation, Stephen Kern, Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Department of History, outlined the pros and cons of having 24 hour access to a seemingly limitless amount of information at your fingertips.

One advantage is that technological advancements allow people of all socioeconomic backgrounds to prepare for life-changing conditions such as weather events, Kern said.

Stephen Kern“The ability to predict the future increases by one day in terms of predicting a hurricane every decade using computer models,” Kern said. “In 1920 they looked at almanacs, that was just superstition. You knew when it was raining when your head was wet. They didn’t have that knowledge. We have this knowledge (now) and everyone has this knowledge. You know what’s going to happen: in three days a hurricane is coming.”

Kern noted that certain human inventions have created a paradox: Technological advances have led to more accurate weather forecasts, but the carbon footprint needed to produce and power some forms of technology can have a detrimental effect on the environment.

“Technology creates all kinds of environmental problems,” he said, “and they also make it possible to manage them.”

Another advantage of advanced technology is its ability to diagnose and treat medical conditions earlier and more effectively, especially rare diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Huntington’s, Kern said.

“We didn’t know much about them (in past decades). There are certain tests now that we have with these diseases,” he said. “Rich and poor have access to that. It’s a good thing.”

In a question-and-answer session after Kern’s presentation, one participant pointed out that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the increase in people working remotely resulted in a greater reliance on technology to conduct business and gather information. Research materials previously only available by visiting a library’s physical location were digitized and made available online, increasing access, especially for individuals with disabilities.

“Technology has opened things up,” Kern said.

The pandemic also highlighted the importance of technology for staying connected with colleagues, friends and family who live far away, Kern said.

Before the internet you said goodbye to your son or daughter. They got on a ship to go somewhere, to Australia or somewhere far away from the United States, you may never hear from them,” he said. “It would be unbearable for us to do without all these things – let a child go away and you can’t talk to them, you won’t hear from them for the next year, let alone get a message, let alone know that they have it.”

The discussion also focused on the digital divide between generations. One participant said she noticed that many young people are used to being constantly connected to smartphones, tablets and laptops, while some older adults prefer to disconnect from technology and communicate face-to-face.

Kern noted that adults of all ages express a reluctance to return to a simpler way of life and give up modern conveniences.

“Nobody wants a slow computer. Nobody wants a dial-up computer. We want (Internet access) now,” Kern said. “It’s transformative, but who doesn’t want it?”

Participants also discussed how 24-hour connectivity can lead to information overload and a growing intolerance to dealing with downtime without a device in hand.

“There are all kinds of wheels and quadrants going at the same time and a lot of things happening at the same time,” Kern said. “Is that good or bad or will it get worse? I don’t know. It’s hard to keep up.”

The presentation “Pace in the Internet Age” is part of the Center for Historical Research’s 2021-2023 lecture series, “Crisis, Uncertainty, and History: Trajectories and Experiences of Accelerated Change.” Learn more about upcoming events in the series

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