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Boo! A brief history of technology scares

People have been worrying about the effects of new technology since, well, fire
Worried by sandwich-buying robots?
istock; Getty Images; AP; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Updated Jan. 18, 2018

Halloween isn’t the only time when everybody seems to enjoy being frightened. We must enjoy it year round, given the steady diet of fear the media keeps us on. It’s particularly true in the technology world. Recently, studies have shown social media is rewiring our children’s brains, there’s been an uproar over the addictive qualities of tech products, and then there’s all the freakishly terrifying dangers found in every episode of Black Mirror. The World Health Organization continues to look into the connection between Wi-Fi and cancer, Harvard University is increasingly concerned about the Internet and privacy and Microsoft has put out a book warning us about A.I.

Alas, a glance through time shows this is nothing new. People have been worrying about the effects of new technology since, well, fire.

Here, then, are five great examples from history. The next time you read a story about how Wi-Fi may, possibly, conceivably, potentially cause cancer or that in the future robots will run and ruin the world.

Writing: As great a philosopher as he was, Socrates had his moments of idiocy too. He was not big on actually committing ideas to paper, for example, because he thought it would result in peoples’ memories getting worse. In his own words, “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” Thank the stars nobody listened to the old coot, because if I had to orally recite every blog post, I’d be crazier than he was.

Books & the printing press: Conrad Gessner, a Swiss biologist in the 16th century, really didn’t like the invention of the printing press because, he felt, it would lead to information overload. He urged various monarchs to regulate the trade, so the public wouldn’t have to suffer with the “confusing and harmful abundance of books.” Hmm, where have we heard that before (or since, rather)?

Electricity: When electricity started arriving on the scene in the 19th century, many people were too afraid to use it. U.S. President Benjamin Harrison was apparently one of them. Harrison reportedly had White House staff turn the lights on and off because he was scared of getting electrocuted. Similarly, the general public also feared electric doorbells when they were first rolled out. Imagine how shocked they’d be at electricity’s ubiquity now. Okay, that was a bad pun. Scary bad.

Radio: In 1936, music magazine Gramophone lamented the arrival of radio for many of the same reasons that reading and writing were attacked. Ironically, the magazine didn’t like radio because it diminished those two activities, which by the 20th century were seen not as scourges of society, but rather as generally good things to do. Radio had a a habit of enthralling kids to the point that “they have developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker,” the magazine wrote. Even better: “At night the children often lie awake in bed restless and fearful, or wake up screaming as a result of nightmares brought on by mystery stories.” The same has essentially been said for just about every new technology to come along, from video games to the Internet to texting.

Email: You’d think a CNN article about email hurting the IQ “more than pot” might be something from the early 1990s, but nope, it was published in 2005. I’m not an expert on proper scientific method, but the study that the story was based on appears to have more holes in it than Hotmail’s spam filter. The best part are the quotes decrying the bad effects of email from some guy at HP. You know, Hewlett-Packard—the company that makes a ton of money from selling devices that people use to print stuff out… on paper.

All of this is just more evidence that when it comes to spreading fear and ignorance about new technologies, there are no corners that the media and some supposedly smart people won’t cut.