In defense of techno-panics: Why a little worry can be a good thing

We're not endorsing full-on freakouts about every exciting new technology. But sometimes a little pushback can be a good thing.

Last year as anxiety about Google Glass recording in public spiked, technologist Jeff Jarvis relayed a tale from the late 19th century of a visitor to Denver who tried to take a photo of a Native American woman, who attacked his camera with a knife. To contemporary chroniclers, she was afraid the camera would steal her soul -- but it's also possible she just didn't want her picture taken. Indeed, contemporary anxiety about so-called "Kodak fiends" was peaking among all Americans at the time, with anxiety that people (especially women) would be photographed in public against their will. Why don't we live in a hellscape panopticon now?

It pays to be polite

Jarvis argues that what happened was simple: social norms developed so that people simply don't take pictures of each other in public anymore. Not that it's unheard of -- the Reddit creepshot controversy seems like the contemporary version of the aggressive Kodak fiend of the 1890s -- but it's clearly rude, and fought back against. Eventually, Google Glass will adapt to make it obvious when it's filming and when it's not. Jarvis is arguing against techno-panics, but another way to look at it is that these "panics" help shape the norms that allow technology to be better integrated into society -- and as you'll see, this has happened over and over again.

Real Luddites were no luddites

The word "Luddite" is often used to sneer at people who we see as stopping the march of progress. The story that most people know is that 19th century British weavers, fearful of being replaced by machines, attacked mechanical looms in a doomed attempt to keep progress at bay.

In fact, the story is more complex than that. Most of the Luddites were actually skilled machine operators, and their main worry was that they were going to be replaced with less-skilled workers in violation of existing agreements with employers. In other words, it was a labor dispute, albeit a violent one, and it ended as the two sides came to a grudging consensus. Only in retrospect was this a story about technology.

Putting knowledge in order

Conrad Gessner often pops up in lists of techno-panics for his worry in the early days of the printing press that there were simply too many books coming out for scholars to handle. But Gessner's reaction was not to demand that printing presses be shut down; instead, he did his best to create a compendium of scientific printed work in European scientific circles, leading science writer Anna Pavord to dub him a "16th century Google with the added bonus of critical evaluation." In the end, Gessner's work presaged much of the way society adapted to cope with the explosion of content that the printing press unleashed.

More than a spark needed

There were plenty of strange and in retrospect silly fears about electricity that we laugh about now -- that "vapors" would seep out of outlets and smother people, for instance. But in practice, much of what held the spread of electricity back was entirely practical: for most of the world, the only way to get electricity in your home was to have your own generator, and these were expensive, loud, and smelly, which meant that only rich people could keep them running and properly hidden away (downstairs, where the servants would have to put up with them). Once true nationwide electric grids emerged, people adopted the technology fairly quickly.

Rules of the road

The early "horseless carriages" were regarded with fear by many. We remember the techno-panic about automobiles travelling faster than the human body could withstand; but the reality was that the proliferation of cars on the road, with laws tailored to regulate pedestrians and the occasional horse-drawn carriage, led to chaos and worries about lynch law. This video, showing San Francisco in 1906, gives you a sense of the anarchy on the road.

What followed was complete reorientation of road law to accommodate more and faster cars, with the new crime of "jaywalking" invented to keep pedestrians and autos separate. Only then could the full advantages of automotive tech be realized.

Don't believe the quotes

"Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia," said Professor Dionysus Larder in the early 19th century; today, we snicker at this obviously false assertion. The only flaw in this story is that, as amply demonstrated in this master class on research at Wikipedia, he never actually said it. Larder did testify before the British Parliament that the Box Tunnel, a major and controversial engineering project, could be dangerous because of its steep grade. The extensive list of 19th century rail accidents shows that tech worry, if not panic, was justified. Calls for safety like Larder's were part of the process that made rail travel routine.

But is it art?

An oft-repeated and oft-mocked line from the dawn of photography: "Painting is dead!" said French painter Paul Delaroche when he saw the earliest daguerreotypes. This has often been dismissed as a techno-panic, given that painting continues to be alive and well. But the fact remains that painting as Delaroche knew it was dead. Painting would be profoundly changed, its influence restricted, attempts at realism often abandoned -- because what could match photographic perfection? -- and new abstract imagery explored. Artists saved paintings only by turning it into something else entirely in the face of technological innovation.

Do panic, a little

And to conclude, let's briefly consider some technopanics that didn't happen, but maybe should've. Remember how we discussed people's anxieties about having electricity in their homes? Well, they apparently didn't object to having electricity in their bodies, as harmful electric "treatments" became all the rage; radiation was used for the same kind of quackery, even in the 1950s when everyone should've known better. So the next time you make fun of pushback against new technology, remember: sometimes it needs to be pushed back against, and almost always the result is a synthesis that integrates that tech into society.