The shock of the new
October 11, 2017 3:11 AM   Subscribe

I’m looking for contemporaneous quotes about the danger posed by new inventions, for example the fear that the speed of trains would cause miscarriages or that novels would corrupt the minds of young ladies. The quotes could be about the moral effects of new inventions (‘the pill will end humanity!’) or more practical safety fears. I’m not looking for condemnation of inventions that really do have dangerous potential (nuclear weapons), but rather fears that turned out to be completely unfounded once the new inventions were in regular use. Thank you!
posted by matthew.alexander to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Check out the Pessimists Archive podcast. It’s full of exactly this.
posted by veggieboy at 3:47 AM on October 11, 2017 [9 favorites]

I was hoping to be able to pitch in with a letter that I thought I'd seen from the 1800s where a headteacher was bemoaning the use of paper as opposed to slate- but a bit of googling led me to surmise that I had swallowed a hoax/joke-

The quote I had been thinking of was- “Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems. They depend upon their slates which are more expensive. What will they do when the slate is dropped and it breaks? They will be unable to write!” (Fake.)
posted by Gratishades at 5:34 AM on October 11, 2017

François Arago, a famous French scientist and politician of the 19th century, was opposed to railroads. He made a speech in the Chamber of Deputies on 16 June 1836 where he described the dangers of the fast decrease in temperature experienced by passengers when entering a tunnel: "I assert without hesitation that in this sudden passage the persons prone to perspiration will be inconvenienced, and that they will suffer from pneumonia, pleurisy, and catarrh". In the same speech he also feared that the explosion of the steam engine in a tunnel would have "deleterious effects", though he admitted that the risk was low (source, p. 299-300).
posted by elgilito at 5:38 AM on October 11, 2017

Humphrey Jennings' book Pandaemonium 1660-1886 comes to mind, a fascinating read. On the mobile so no link.
posted by 15L06 at 6:32 AM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Pandaemonium 1660–1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers by Humphrey Jennings (Google books preview; Amazon; Goodreads)

Mentalfloss has an article on fears of a few early technologies, including:
Critics of early steam-spewing locomotives, for example, thought “that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour,” and worried that “[female passengers’] uteruses would fly out of [their] bodies as they were accelerated to that speed”—which, for the record, they did and will not.* Others suspected that any human body might simply melt at high speeds.
This society-wide panic often (unfairly) dotes on the threats an innovation might pose to women and children, and it didn’t end when we got over our locomotive fears. As automobiles gained traction in the early 1900s, they were seen by many as noisy, erratic “devil wagons” that women—thought to be prone to fainting, physical weakness, and out-of-the-blue bouts of hysteria—wouldn’t be able to control by themselves and shouldn’t be allowed to drive.
Time’s also told us that, despite initial fears of the telephone’s possible downsides, chatting on the phone will not cause impropriety, possession, or electrocution in women. With any luck, it’ll turn out that the text-happy youngsters of today will still be able to speak in full sentences tomorrow.

*It’s worth noting, though, that both men and women can risk straining or detaching certain soft connective tissues (such as those holding retinae or breasts in place) when they subject their bodies to truly rapid acceleration—so bungee jumpers be wary.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:00 AM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

This may be what caused you to post your question, but there are plenty of such warnings about now with respect to artificial intelligence. Here is a link to an article quoting Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates.

Going back a year or two, we have Ben Franklin's invention of the lightning rod. It was opposed by some who thought lightning was due to the Wrath of God, and that the invention was contravening God's Will. Article here.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:05 AM on October 11, 2017

It might be worth checking out the 1970 book, "Future Shock," by Alvin Toffler.
posted by baseballpajamas at 9:10 AM on October 11, 2017

Women and bicycles.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:27 AM on October 11, 2017

Electricity might leak out of the walls.

H/t to my mom: sitting too close to the TV will make you go blind.
posted by 4ster at 11:37 AM on October 11, 2017

Fun version of this: xkcd comic
posted by edbles at 12:09 PM on October 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Plato, quoting Socrates in Phaedrus wasn't too keen on the new-fangled idea of writing, although I suppose it had been around for a while by his time;

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”
posted by Fuchsoid at 12:58 PM on October 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sousa was a former music pirate who wasn't so happy about other people pirating his stuff.

Popular Amusements by J[onathan] T[ownley] Crane (1869) explains why everything fun is bad. None of this is particularly new, but it's still an old man complaining about fun things the kids these days do.

Apparently there was a claim that electric typewriters would make women fat. And if you read this article, you'll find a number of references to earlier claims about the dangers of the typewriter.

Kaleidoscopes were popular enough in Victorian England that some people got upset about them.

Thrase Talmon wrote an article in The National Era warning that the increasing hustle and bustle of modern life was not only making people more stressed and unhealthy, but was somehow causing them to grow up shorter.

There's plenty of garbage written about how video games are dangerous, despite the lack of professional-quality research.

Moving pictures were also full of evil, apparently.

Did you know that not only was Lincoln shot in a theater, but he was shot because theaters exist to spread evil.

So not all of this is new technology, but it's all confused old folks being upset by things.

And, if you want a bunch of different people terrified of novels, check out the scholarly Merry Coz and sarcastic The Kids These Days.
posted by Fanghorn Dungeon, LLC at 2:02 PM on October 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

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