Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Our history of fearing technology

200,000 years ago, in a forested area of what is today South Africa, a Homo Erectus named Ogg discovered that when you rub two sticks together really fast you can create fire. 

Delighted with this new technology, he showed it to the rest of his tribe. Some were Impressed, some apathetic and others predicted that this new technology would burn down the cave, destroy their livelihoods and ultimately cause the downfall of all humanity. But in time they all just became used to having cooked meals, sterilised water and life moved on.

OK, I just made that up, but it’s true that humans do have a long and almost humorous history of fearing new technology. Today’s trending fear is that artificial intelligence will become sentient, take over everyone’s jobs and ultimately enslave humanity. Whilst I’m no seer, I’m pretty sure that none of that will happen. But while we wait to find out, I thought I might take you on a nostalgic journey through the history of humanity losing our minds over new technology.

Chapter One

In the middle of the 1400’s a man by the name of Johannes Gutenberg had invented and perfected the first commercial printing machine called the Gutenberg press. 

For the first time books could be produced on mass which would allow far more people access to them. You would think that’s a good thing right? Well not if you’re a King or a member of the clergy. They feared that if books were easier to produce and circulate, society would be introduced to a wider variety of thoughts and may turn rebellious or irreligious.

Scribes’ Guilds feared their members would lose their jobs and some thought access to too much information could damage people’s brains. 

Remember, ignorance is bliss.

Chapter Two

When the first railway opened in 1825 people thought it unnatural for human beings to travel as fast as 30miles an hour (48kmh). 
 
Some feared this speed would literally rip people apart. Some people also believed that train travel could damage people’s brains and in some cases cause instant insanity. 
 
That’s right, people were losing their minds over the fear of losing their minds. The fear of train travel became so wide spread it was given its own name  – Railway Neurosis, which was to become the first recognised psychosomatic illness and is credited with birthing the field of psychotherapy.
 
Cars hit the scene around 40 years later. 
 
Known as a Horseless carriages, people feared these menacing machines would pose a serious threat to pedestrians, bicyclists and horses. In those days, most highways had a speed limit of 4 miles per hour and as some of the new horseless carriages could go up to 3 times this speed, people demanded strict regulation. 
 
In 1865 Britain passed a law that dictated whilst any horseless carriage was in motion, a person was required to walk not less than Sixty yards (55 meters) in front carrying a red flag to alert bicycle and horse riders of the approaching vehicle. And in the USA, laws were proposed that would require that when a horse was approaching, the driver had to pull over to the side of the road and cover the vehicle with a blanket so as to not scare the horse. If the horse refused to pass it by, the driver had to dismantle the vehicle and hide it in the bushes as fast as he could. 
 
On top of this, when driving at night a driver must send up a flare every mile then wait ten minutes for the road to clear. 
 

Chapter three

In the 1880’s electricity started to be transmitted. The two men credited with this, were Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. 
 
Each championed a different form of electricity. Edison was invested in direct current (DC) and Westinghouse championed alternating current (AC). In the end AC won out, but not before Edison embarked on a campaign to discredit Westinghouse’s product. He electrocuted animals to death – including a horse – in front of newspaper reporters to prove that AC current was dangerous. 
 
Now I will acknowledge that fear of electricity is probably a healthy fear to have, but Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the USA was so afraid to use light switches that had been newly installed in the white house he made staff do it for him. 
 
I guess he figured his staff were expendable. Nice guy.
 
Around the same time as the fear of light switches was gripping the highest echelons of American politics, another new technology caused fear and consternation among the masses. 
 
It was of course the Telephone. 
 
Some people were afraid they would get electrocuted if they used them – a misguided by-product of Edison’s propaganda war on AC perhaps.
 
But that’s not all, there were actual fears that the telephone could be used to communicate with the dead and were thus conduits for evil spirits. Of course, no one actually had the number for the afterlife, but why let a little thing such as obvious facts get in the way of a good freak out.
 
Chapter four
 
Next of the rank was the invention of radios. 
 
In the 1920’s when public radio broadcast started to spread, people fretted that it would distract children from reading books and thus diminish scholastic performance (apparently books causing irreligiousness and rebellion were no longer a concern).
 
But that was not the biggest fear. 
 
Many people feared radiation from the technology would affect their health and give them cancer. Let’s not forget when in 1938 that Orson Welles made America lose their minds with a radio broadcast of H.G. Walls’s “War of the world”. 
 
There have been so many technological freak outs throughout human history that it’s impractical for me to go into them all in-depth, but I’ll briefly mention just a few other new technologies that were destined to harm or destroy us all. 
 
Cinemas, television, microwaves, VHS video recorders, mobile phones, text messaging, video games, industrial robotics, the internet, crypto currency, virtual reality and even E-mail have all been the harbinger of doom at some point in time. 
 
As recently as 2005, CNN published an article about “research” which demonstrated that emails reduced peoples IQ’s more than marijuana. The commonality in all of these advances, is that humanity came to understand all of these new and scary technologies. We have adapted to them and learned to make good use of their offering and generally, we have benefited from them.
 
Artificial intelligence is just the latest bogyman under the technological bed. 
 
Like I said at the beginning of this article, I can’t see into the future. Maybe AI will actually become sentient and we’ll all be reduced to being human batteries in some grand simulation, or have to fight some advanced robot sent back from the future to terminate us.
 
But I think what’s more likely to happen is we’ll all get used to it, learn how to use it to better our lives before deciding that some other new tech is going to destroy life as we know it. 
 
Then we’ll freak out all over again.
 
 
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Albert Feynman

Albert Feynman

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