There’s nothing new about fear of the new
Rats and mice are frightened of new things. They probably evolved this strategy to foil people who devise new kinds of baits and traps. Fear of the new is known as ‘‘neophobia’’ and happens with people as well as animals. People give many novelties a wide berth, their neophobia sometimes running for generations.
When cheap books became readily available in the 1700s, Britain’s neophobic Reverend Vicesimus Knox warned ‘‘Few students will study Homer or Virgil when they can read Tom Jones or a thousand inferior or more dangerous novels’’.
In the 1800s many prominent people were seriously anxious about young people reading too much. Goethe’s best-selling novel The Sorrows of Young Werther was blamed for a spate of German suicides. Throughout Europe excessive reading was called reading addiction, reading rage, reading fever, and reading mania, people fearing that it led to dissolute living and depravity.
When railway coaches first ran in Britain, travellers feared the worst. It was widely thought that the incredible speeds of 30 miles per hour (48kmh) would kill people by melting them.
When telephones were invented, many elderly folk were frightened to touch them for fear of getting electric shocks. Swedish preachers taught the telephone was an instrument of the devil and phone lines were conduits for evil spirits.
Before pasteurisation was invented, many people caught bovine tuberculosis by drinking infected milk. About 1900, Americans were quick to pasteurise their milk on a national scale but Brits would have none of it. They claimed that process ruined the taste and nutritional value of the milk.
Not until the 1920s did Brits change their minds when they saw tuberculosis and child mortality in America plunge dramatically. The Brits reluctantly followed suit.
In 1916, Charlie Chaplin said ‘‘Cinema is no more than a fad. It’s just canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage’’.
In the 40s and 50s, many authorities triggered a moral panic about comic books as they were supposed to cause eyestrain, promoted bad taste, illiteracy, and depravity.
Genetic engineering was demonised from the start, the public fearing its effects on health, the environment, and superweeds over-running farm crops. The paranoid New Zealand public still fears genetic engineering, despite its wide use and never harming anybody or anything for 40 years.
Robots and nanotechnology put the wind up people and there are fears the new genetic technique of CRISPR might produce cloned babies, super athletes, super soldiers, and cyborgs with a licence to kill.
Many fear that text messaging ruins young people’s grasp of English but kids have always used their own slang, abbreviations and acronyms, to the despair of the older generation.
And don’t forget video games. They make boys fat, ruin their social skills, and provide training manuals for mass murderers! But how is it that young women also play these games in near equal numbers and don’t become crazed killers? Neophobia is still with us.