Albert Einstein? Cell Phone Critics? Pranksters? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: A friend sent me a link to a message on a website with the title: “The day that Albert Einstein feared may have finally arrived”. The message showed eight pictures of groups of people looking intently at cell phone screens. The people were ignoring one another and were oblivious to their surroundings. The images were being used to comically illustrate the following quotation credited to Albert Einstein:
I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.
I was suspicious of this attribution and when I searched the internet I found another similar saying credited to Einstein in a web forum. This statement was also illustrated with an image of people staring at cell phone screens.
I fear the day when the technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots.
I have a different fear. I fear the day that individuals will believe that Einstein actually made one of these inane statements. Could you examine these sayings?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made either of these statements. Neither appears in the comprehensive collection of quotations “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1
Both versions given by the questioner were in circulation in 2012. For example, a website called answerbag.com presented a version of the saying in a message with an attached date of October 21, 2012: 2
Einstein: I fear the day when the technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots. Was he right?
Dates on websites are sometimes inaccurate because the retroactive alteration of text and dates is easy to accomplish. Sometimes the content of a webpage is altered, and the date associated with the content is not updated to reflect the modification.
A website called imfunny.net currently displays a composite image post dated November 3, 2012 with the title: “The day that Albert Einstein feared may have finally arrived”. The post consists of nine images including one displaying the quotation given below. Two of the images are shown at the top of this article. No name is given for the person posting the message: 3
“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” Albert Einstein
Below are additional selected citations.
The “Talk” webpage for Albert Einstein at the Wikiquote website lists a third version of the quotation in a section titled: “Unsourced and dubious/overly modern sources”. The revision history of the webpage indicates that the expression was added by an unnamed person on November 3, 2012: 4
I fear the day when technology overlaps our humanity. It will be then that the world will have permanent ensuing generations of idiots.
In 1995 a movie called “Powder” included a quotation that was credited to Einstein which has a thematic overlap with the sayings above. Note that there is no substantive support linking this quote to Einstein:
It’s become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.
The quote in “Powder” was discussed previously on the QI website. Here is a link. It is possible that the existence of this expression influenced the development of more recent sayings ascribed to the famous physicist.
In conclusion, QI believes that Albert Einstein did not write or say any of the three variant quotations. Individuals who were aggravated by the behavior patterns of cell phone users probably facilitated the construction, evolution, and dissemination of this meme. The phrasing of the saying has changed over time and different sets of pictures have been attached. QI hypothesizes that the origination date was recent, perhaps as late as 2012. The efforts of the creators have been successful for now. The basic saying has achieved viral status with its dubious ascription.
Image Notes: Portrait of Albert Einstein by E. O. Hoppe from LIFE magazine in 1921. Cell phone picture from kropekk_pl at Pixabay.
(Many thanks to the following perceptive individuals: Guy MacPherson, Doug Wrotenbery, and M. Scott Gravlee who contacted QI and implicitly or explicitly expressed skepticism about these quotations ascribed to Einstein. Thanks also to Douglas and Matze who placed queries in the comment section. Their messages provided impetus for this investigation.)
- 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. ↩
- Answerbag website, Section: Questions: Life And Society: More Life And Society, Message posted by Susan_madari, Date October 21, 2012, Answerbag is part of Demand Media Corporation. (Accessed answerbag.com on March 19, 2013) link ↩
- imfunny.net website, Website title: “Funny Pictures, Funny Quotes – Photos, Quotes, Images, Pics imfunny.net – is just for fun”, Title: The day that Albert Einstein feared may have finally arrived, Date: November 3, 2012. (Accessed imfunny.net March 19, 2013) link ↩
- Wikiquote website, Wikiquote webpage for Albert Einstein: Talk discussion page, History system indicates quotation was added during an update dated November 3, 2012 by an anonymous individual, A Wikimedia Project of Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. (Accessed wikiquote.org on March 19, 2013) link ↩