Physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), whose theoretical work helped lay groundwork for the creation of the atomic bomb, famously worried about the potential for science and technology to be misused in ways catastrophic to the future of humanity. In later life, he became a strong advocate of peaceful cooperation between nations, a possibility he saw threatened by changes in the social fabric already wrought by technological advances.
“I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives,” he wrote in a letter to his friend, psychiatrist Otto Juliusburger, in 1948, “a disastrous byproduct of science and technology. Nostra culpa!”
Einstein was particularly concerned about the destructive power of nuclear weapons, which he had urged President Franklin Roosevelt to develop before the Nazis did during World War II, but which he feared would lay waste to the earth. In a letter co-written with philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1955, Einstein urged world leaders to abandon war and seek peaceful means of resolving international conflicts instead:
There lies before us, if we choose, continued progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest.
Einstein’s forebodings about scientific advancement devoid of human values would appear to lend credence to another reflection — or perhaps it’s more of a prophecy — which is usually phrased something like this:
I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.
For obvious reasons, this quote has become immensely popular on the Internet, where it is often accompanied by images showing young people transfixed by smartphones or other electronic devices (the Daily Mail web site concocted an entire feature around it in 2015, for example). The message isn’t subtle: Einstein was right; that day is here — behold the generation of idiots!
The thing is, as best we can tell the quote is a fabrication, and one of quite recent origin, at that. Not only is there no evidence that Einstein said or wrote anything of the kind, but there appear to be no published instances of it prior to 2012.
A similar, shorter quote attributed to Einstein can be found in some sources, though its authenticity is in question, as well:
It’s become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.
Though we have yet to see a citation identifying precisely where and when Einstein supposedly said this, we have at least found examples of its attribution to him dating back before the 2000s — as far back as 1995, in fact, when a character in the American film Powder (written and directed by Victor Salva) uttered it:
Donald Ripley: “It’s become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.”
Powder: “Albert Einstein.”
Donald Ripley: “I look at you, and I think that someday our humanity might actually surpass our technology.”
As noted in the Wikiquote page for the film, however, although the statement is attributed to Einstein in the book Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers, and Healers (2000) by Nina L. Diamond (and we found an even earlier mention on page 103 of DeAnna Emerson’s Mars/Earth Enigma: A Sacred Message to Mankind, published in 1996), no one has yet found a published instance of it predating the release of Powder.
Neither the shorter nor the longer version of the statement appears in The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, the definitive collection of Einstein quotes edited by renowned Einstein expert Alice Calaprice and published by Princeton University Press in 2010.
Calaprice, Alice. The Ultimate Quotable Einstein.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. ISBN 9781400835966.
Emerson, DeAnna. Mars/Earth Enigma: A Sacred Message to Mankind.
Lakeville, MN: Galde Press, 1996. ISBN 9781880090183 (p. 103).
Mount, Harry. “Was Einstein Right?”
Daily Mail. 27 January 2015.
Wikiquote. “Powder (film).”
1 August 2014.