“Schlimmbesserung” – So-called Improvement that actually makes things worse

A philosopher at the University of Toronto, Mark Kingwell introduced to me a fascinating German word in his article on the Globe and Mail: it’s “Schlimmbesserung.”  It means the so-called improvement that makes things actually worse.  I find the word very relevant today, when a new technology is introduced every nano second.  They say: when a new product is introduced, it’s already obsolete.  I like its ambivalence.  I think English language should have such a word.   But the question is, “Are we better off?” I am not sure.

The expression appropriately described my feeling about Windows Vista that came with my new desktop.  The new operating system was touted as a great improvement.  But for me it was the opposite.  I hated it.  Likewise, there are many so-called improvements that are not.   They are changes for the sake of change so that manufactures make more profit by selling new products.

Neil Postman, a professor at MIT, opens his book “Technopoly” with a story of invention of writing.   It is a legend of the ancient Egypt which Plato quoted in “Phaedrus”.  As the story goes, King Thamus called on the god of invention, Theuth, to explain his creations: number, algebra, calculus, geometry, astronomy, and writing.  It is amazing that so much of today’s science is based on those ancient Egyptian inventions.  The king liked many of them except writing.  He had doubts.  Theuth extoled writing as it would improve the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians.  But the king reacted, “those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.”  They rely on external signs in stead of their own internal resources.  It retards our intelligence.  The Postman’s book is a lot about what humans lost because of new technological developments while making improvements.

Surely, what benefits digital revolution brought to our society is incalculable.  We can bring any new information with a click of a mouse on to the screen.  But what we have lost is also innumerable.  People do not talk to each other in person any more.  They relate to each other but on the screen.  They talk by clicking a mouse and/or touching a screen on Facebook or Twitters.  We have developed new ways to relate to each other.  People are alone but they are not lonely.  I thought “phone sex” was strange, but now virtual sex on social network!  A brave new world!

Just watch the kids who come to your home for sleep-over. You see them sitting around on the floor, each playing one’s own game, watching their own shows on their own devises.   No more pillow fight nor running around the house.  They sure are quite.  Is this an improvement or Schlimmbesserung?    In extreme cases, people are killing themselves because they are preoccupied talking or texting on the i-phones while driving.  We think everything new is good.  It isn’t.  We have to know the negative consequences of the new.

Every step of progress has both positive and negative aspects to it.  It is a mistake to assume that everything new is good, and old is to be abandoned.

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