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Social history of tech-based fear - from filaments of death to instruments of the devil...
As part of a series of articles exploring the effect of IT on society, silicon.com examined humanity's fear of technology. In the last of the series, Natasha Lomas traces the history of technology-inspired moral panics.
Technology brings many things to our lives - superfast computations, downloadable apps, the perfect slice of toast.
It is, however, a change agent - and change makes a lot of people uneasy. Emerging technologies may be bursting with benefits but all too often they're overshadowed by neophobia: the fear of something new.
While modern technology - be it video games, social networking or even the internet itself - generates screeds of hand-wringing headlines accusing it of corrupting society each year, such fears are by no means new.
Almost from its very first instances, technology has inspired moral panics. Here, we take a look back at the history of technophobia.
1. The written word
Today, the alphabet is about as uncontroversial as can be - but it wasn't always so. As soon as humans developed the technology to represent language in physical form, fears about its effects sprang up.
Greek philosopher Socrates saw the advent of the written word as a massive threat to society - he feared it would undermine the oral culture of the time. Writing, Socrates argued, would "introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it", degrading humans' capacity to remember. He also feared writing would give students the appearance of wisdom without the actuality of intellect.
In Socrates' view, true knowledge could only be obtained through discourse - actual verbal dialogue between speakers - thus writing's mute marks were dumb in both senses, incapable of teaching humanity anything.
Photo: Kyle Van Horn, Creative Commons
2. The printing press
The invention of the printing press in the 1440s would eventually put paid to the laborious business of scribes copying manuscripts by hand. Printing presses meant books could be created cheaply and in greater quantities than manually copied manuscripts - thereby opening up access to information in a way that made traditional power structures uneasy.
The rise of mechanical book production ushered in a plethora of moral panics. There were fears that orthodox religious teachings would be undermined by the false prophets of fake bibles. There were concerns the printing press would destroy the church, and possibly the state too. Other worries were that people would simply become overloaded by the sheer volume of information being made available - a concern we now find attached to the internet.
It was also thought printing would make scribes lazy and the understanding of texts would suffer because readers would no longer have to copy works by hand.
Photo: Christina Xu, Creative Commons