February 05, 2016

Pessimism in Historical Perspective

By Chelsea German
Pessimism about potentially life-enhancing technologies is not new. The Twitter account Pessimist’s Archive (a favorite of the internet guru Marc Andreessen) chronicles the unending stream of pessimism with old newspaper excerpts.

Pessimistic reactions range from merely doubtful (such as this response to the idea of gas lighting in 1809, or this one to the concept of anesthesia in 1839) to outright alarmist (such as this 1999 warning that e-commerce “threatens to destroy more than it could ever create”).

In some cases, the pessimists insist that an older technology is superior to a new one. Some, for example, claimed that an abacus is superior to a computer and a pocket calculator, while others claimed that horses are longer-lasting than the dangerous “automobile terror.”

Others argue that new technology is damaging existing businesses and customs. One particularly emotional 1918 article described how automobiles are destroying the livery stable business and, together with “the movie show,” changing dating forever by ending the tradition of romantic carriage rides.

Another frequent complaint is that new technology exacerbates inequality, because the wealthy tend to adopt new technologies first. One article from 1914, for example, laments that “wireless telephones” will only ever “be a boon to privileged persons.” The article was referring to the early wireless radiotelephones being developed at that time, which were not lightweight handheld devices. Today, of course, wireless phones can fit in your pocket, have many more capabilities, and are ubiquitous. Eventually, the free market tends to drive down the cost of technologies, making them accessible to more people.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about pessimistic responses to new technology is how often the pessimists successfully use the power of the state to try to halt technological progress.

In the 1930s, pessimists feared that radios were a threat to democracy and worried that the devices were ruining childhood. By 1936, the pessimists had succeeded at banning radios in cars in a number of U.S. cities, arguing that they were distracting and might prevent drivers from hearing fire engine sirens.

Sadly, techno-pessimists have managed to enact bans or partial bans on a great variety of technologies. These include “horseless carriages” (cars), “automatic lifts” (elevators), and bicycles (which are “the most dangerous thing to life and property ever invented” according to an 1881 New York Times article). The list also includes, more recently, video games, headphones, and hover-boards.

As new breakthroughs continue to occur practically every day, looking back at how people decried and fought against progress in the past helps put current technological and scientific debates in perspective.