The weird and ne­far­i­ous record of techno­pho­bia

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY JA­SON FEIFER

Af­ter the phono­graph be­came widely avail­able in the late 19th cen­tury, peo­ple mar­veled at the pow­ers of the new­fan­gled ma­chine. For the first time in hu­man his­tory, mu­sic could be ex­pe­ri­enced with­out a live mu­si­cian. But not ev­ery­one wel­comed this rad­i­cal change. Philadel­phia banned phono­graphs from a city park, the New York Med­i­cal Jour­nal re­ported in 1890, be­cause they might “dis­sem­i­nate dis­ease” in the form of in­juries to the ear. The com­poser John Philip Sousa, writ­ing in Ap­ple­ton’s Mag­a­zine in 1906, asked: “When a mother can turn on the phono­graph with the same ease that she ap­plies to the elec­tric light, will she croon her baby to slum­ber with sweet lul­labys, or will the in­fant be put to sleep by ma­chin­ery?” He thought the next gen­er­a­tion would evolve into “hu­man phono­graphs — with­out soul or ex­pres­sion.”

To­day, we know how laugh­ably wrong that all was. Yet when we talk about new tech­nolo­gies, we of­ten sound like eerie echoes of Sousa. Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy is so so­phis­ti­cated, to­day’s crit­ics ar­gue, that peo­ple are bi­o­log­i­cally un­equipped to adapt to it.

Mag­a­zine cov­ers stoke our anx­i­ety, ask­ing “Is Google Mak­ing Us Stoopid?” (the At­lantic) or ex­hort­ing “Put Down Your Phone” (New York). A sta­ple of news­pa­pers’ Sil­i­con Val­ley cov­er­age is the story of ter­ri­fied par­ents try­ing to pro­tect their own chil­dren from the tech­nol­ogy they cre­ate. Count­less au­thors and aca­demics and politi­cians warn about the dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects of screens and so­cial me­dia.

Maybe th­ese fears will turn out to be jus­ti­fied, but the track record for tech­no­log­i­cal fear-mon­ger­ing is not strong. My col­lab­o­ra­tor, Louis Anslow, and I have spent years study­ing by­gone mo­ments of techno­pho­bia for a his­tory pod­cast called “Pes­simists Archive,” read­ing through reams of vin­tage doom­say­ing about dozens of innovations now taken for granted. The ex­pe­ri­ence has left us with one con­clu­sion: Peo­ple have lit­tle idea how innovations will af­fect the world in the long term, and the im­pact is al­most never as bad as pre­dicted.

And the warn­ings them­selves might be harm­ful. At var­i­ous points dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, med­i­cal ex­perts claimed that women could be dam­aged by read­ing fic­tion (“in­sane, in­cur­ably in­sane from read­ing nov­els,” a doc­tor re­ported in 1852) and from rid­ing bi­cy­cles (“retro­ver­sion of the uterus” was among the med­i­cal risks, a doc­tor wrote in the Med­i­cal Press and Cir­cu­lar in 1896). The goal, of course, was to en­sure that women had less in­tel­lec­tual and phys­i­cal ac­cess to the world.

Why do we keep do­ing this to our­selves? I see three pri­mary rea­sons.

First, we ex­pect in­no­va­tion to re­place any­thing it touches, de­stroy­ing the cher­ished thing that came be­fore. In the 1920s, with the au­to­mo­bile be­com­ing com­mon­place, Prince­ton Univer­sity’s dean de­cried the “gaso­line mo­tor car” for erod­ing “moral stan­dards” — young peo­ple could drive some­where other than church, un­chap­er­oned, on Sun­days. Dur­ing a mid-19th-cen­tury boom in the pop­u­lar­ity of chess, Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can was in mourn­ing be­cause the game “robs the mind of valu­able time that might be de­voted to no­bler ac­quire­ments.”

That ig­nores how tech­nol­ogy ac­tu­ally set­tles into peo­ple’s lives: It al­most never re­places things whole­sale. In­stead, it in­te­grates — im­prov­ing the parts of our lives where it makes the most sense. We drive to houses of wor­ship and to other places. We play games and pur­sue other in­ter­ests.

Sec­ond, we tend to be­lieve that if some­thing looks dif­fer­ent, it is dif­fer­ent. Each gen­er­a­tion grows up with par­tic­u­lar habits. Then those habits change. A new gen­er­a­tion might text in­stead of call, or gather in What­sApp groups when there’s no time to do it in per­son. The older gen­er­a­tion views th­ese changes with alarm. If some­one isn’t call­ing on the phone, they fear, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is lost. If some­one isn’t gath­er­ing for pasta din­ners, com­mu­nity is lost. But com­mu­ni­ca­tion and com­mu­nity are core parts of hu­man­ity. They don’t change. Their forms just be­come un­rec­og­niz­able to the next gen­er­a­tion. (“Ad­dic­tion” is sim­i­larly im­mutable — it sim­ply shifts from one new tech­nol­ogy to the next, which is in­vari­ably blamed for cre­at­ing the ad­dic­tion.)

The third ele­ment of techno­pho­bia is a ne­far­i­ous one: pro­tec­tion­ism. Ev­ery time an in­no­va­tion rises, an old guard feels threat­ened. When um­brel­las be­gan ap­pear­ing in Eng­land in the mid-18th cen­tury, the driv­ers of horse-drawn cabs — whose busi­ness thrived in rainy weather — cast the in­ven­tion as ef­fem­i­nate and not fit for proper so­ci­ety. The dairy in­dus­try vil­lainized mar­garine soon af­ter it was in­tro­duced in the United States in the 1870s, when but­ter was ex­pen­sive and mar­garine (then made of beef tal­low) was not. In the mod­ern age, print pub­lish­ers howled about the ad-vac­u­um­ing In­ter­net even as they have tried, with spotty suc­cess, to adapt.

But de­spite cen­turies of technopes­simism, his­tory also of­fers an op­ti­mistic les­son: In­no­va­tion is al­ways op­posed but rarely stopped. So as we be­moan, but also con­tinue to use our iPhones, let’s make the most of this mo­ment. In­stead of wast­ing time on mean­ing­less re­sis­tance, we can fo­cus on rea­son­able con­ver­sa­tions about tech­nol­ogy — about the right bound­aries to set for chil­dren, or about ways to make new forms of con­nec­tiv­ity and trans­porta­tion safer. Af­ter all, even Sousa, who warned that phono­graphs would harm ba­bies, even­tu­ally al­lowed his mu­sic to be recorded. We’re all bet­ter for it. Ja­son Feifer is the host of the pod­cast “Pes­simists Archive” and the ed­i­tor in chief of En­tre­pre­neur mag­a­zine.


Henry Ford in 1900. Cars were once crit­i­cized by a Prince­ton Univer­sity dean as erod­ing “moral stan­dards.”

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