Charles Wagner’s 100-Year-Old Warning About Social Media

The Simple Life

Charles Wagner was a French reformed pastor who worked around the turn of the twentieth century. He preached a radical gospel that rejected dogma and promoted simple living and love of nature.

In 1901, he published a book titled The Simple Life, which angered religious authorities, but became popular in America once translated into English by Mary Louise Hendee.

The fourth chapter of the book is titled “Simplicity in Speech.” It opens with Wagner’s assessment of the current state of  human communication. It starts with a familiar claim:

“Formerly the means of communication between men were considerably restricted. It was natural to suppose that in perfecting and multiplying avenues of information, a better understanding would be brought about. Nations would learn to love each other…citizens of one country would feel themselves bound in closer brotherhood…Nothing could have seemed more evident.”

But even in Wagner’s time, it was clear that this theory wasn’t playing out as expected:

“Alas! this reasoning was based upon the nature and capacity of the instruments, without taking into account the human element, always the most important factor. And what has really come about is this: that cavilers, calumniators, and crooks — all gentlemen glib of tongue, who know better than any one else how to turn voice and pen to account — have taken the utmost advantage of these extended means for circulating thought, with the result that the men of our times have the greatest difficulty in the world to know the truth about their own age and their own affairs.”

As Wagner elaborates:

“For every newspaper that fosters good feeling and good understanding between nations, by trying to rightly inform its neighbors and to study them without reservations, how many spread defamation and distrust! What unnatural and dangerous currents of opinion set in motion! What false alarms and malicious interpretations of words and facts!”

Writing in 1901, Wagner was commenting on the rise of tabloid newspapers, and the decontextualization of information caused by the telegraph (as Neil Postman so expertly documented).

I’m citing his commentary here, of course, because he could have just as easily been referring to the cycle of utopian hope to fake news despair that describes the recent rapid progression from the early internet boosterism to the Facebook Age.

It’s worth revisiting Wagner because his diagnosis of the issue is as relevant today as it was in 1901: when confronting new technology we cannot reason based only on the “nature and capacity of the instruments,” we must also remember the “human element.”

It’s this “most important factor” that keeps tripping us up.

(Hat tip: Cliff)

22 thoughts on “Charles Wagner’s 100-Year-Old Warning About Social Media”

  1. I’d argue this is even more relevant today than in 1901, for the tendencies Wagner describes in his writings seem to have been exacerbated by the unfathomed reach information technology has brought to the equation. Great post as usual Cal!

  2. Fascinating – and so true. I always feel that the news isn’t necessarily the news, but rather someone’s opinion of the news. And often, it’s not news at all. In today’s world, many movies and TV shows also seem to contain ‘lessons’ for the audience which reflect the opinions of the writers and producers. I do love the idea of a simple life and appreciation of nature…..

    • “Someone’s opinion of the news.” I’ve worked in newsrooms as a photojournalist. It is true. You only see the photos I decide to take and the editors decide to run. Same with writers. Some people have valid, well informed opinions. Some are more ignorant and self serving.

  3. Yes to appreciation of nature. I’d like to hear more Cal. When you wrote Deep Work, you briefly touched on Attention Restoration Theory, and how that can help heal a persons fragmented attention span….among other things I’d argue.

  4. Its a human thing to only take the details that reinforce your own belief. No matter the medium or technology the written word can and will be misconstrued.

    • Thanks for posting that link. We’ve told our kids (11 and 7) that we might–MIGHT–get them a “dumb phone” when they’re 16. Otherwise, they are not permitted to have devices that they tote around as their own.

      This year, the school is “giving” all 6th graders iPads to bring to all classes and to take home. We said no to the take-home part. Our son was angry at first, but when we explained our reasons, he actually thought it was cool to be different.

      We’ve also told him that we are going to do everything we can to help him say no to social media until he’s in college. (My husband and I are both retired from all social media.) I said, “Stay off it, and then write your college entrance essay about the pros and cons of that choice. You’ll be as rare as a unicorn!”)

      Does anyone know what Cal’s stance is on his own kids and personal devices?

  5. Hello Cal. I’m writing this at 5am here in Manila Philippines. I’m 29 yo and I quit social media completely 4 months ago. I just wanted to let you know that when I saw your TED YouTube video you became my instant hero. Thanks for being a life saver.

  6. Cal – one of your best finds regarding social media. Been a reader of yours since I was in college, and this blog is a goldmine for anyone trying to live the good life.

    This is a truth lurking deep beneath consequence at the moment.

  7. I am new to your blog, and I found this post quite fascinating and its a bit true. basically social media is acting as an outrage porn: mildly offensive issue are on news rather than the real ones!!

  8. It is definitely the human element. As a young adult it is evident that so many people portray themselves dishonestly on social media. They all go onto youtube and express that they only show the good times in their lives and to me that is being dishonest and is removing the humanity in their content. It is as though they are portraying that life only has the ups and there are no downs.

  9. Hey Cal! Wanted to ask you something specific about deep breaks. Would pulling out your phone on airplane mode to listen to an audiobook while going on a short walk create any attention residue? Thanks for everything that you do.

  10. Cal – important question, not sure you addressed it ever. In his The Power of Habit, Duiggh mentions that often the cue to a habit (checking your phone etc, biting your fingernails etc.) also involves a physical sensation (tingling sensation, abdominal “pain” etc.). Do you know if anyone has ever studied the non-brain related physical aspects of social media/tech/smartphone addiction?

    • This is a good question. I don’t have a definitive answer. I’ve seen studies, however, where the sound of a vibrating phone has a big impact on people — especially young people. If you setup an experiment, for example, where you’re measuring their stress reactions and they can hear their phone ring but not complete the habitual cycle of picking up the phone to answer, they become quite stressed.


Leave a Comment