Photos: Top 10 technology-induced moral panics

Social history of tech-based fear - from filaments of death to instruments of the devil...
By Natasha Lomas, Contributor
1 of 10 Kyle Van Horn, Creative Commons


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.

2 of 10 Christina Xu, Creative Commons

printing press

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.

3 of 10 Luis Argerich, Creative Commons

high speed travel

3. High-speed travel

Travelling at high speed is something we now take for granted - it's generally considered a mundane business that requires seat-back entertainment to render it less boring.

But the introduction of faster forms of transport, such as trains that travelled in excess of 20mph, caused all sorts of consternation in their day.

Travelling at such speeds was something new in the human experience, causing a raft of fears to come hurtling in. There were fears that passengers would become asphyxiated, that trains would ruin crops and terrify livestock, and even that women's wombs would fly right out of their bodies at such 'unnatural' speeds.

4 of 10 Ben Becker, Creative Commons

Electricity lightbulb

4. Electricity

Today we talk about being 'switched on' or 'plugged in' to express positive engagement with a topic, but the electrification of homes and businesses brought as much fear as light into the lives of the people at the time.

Concerns included whether electric lightbulbs were a fire hazard and fears about the risk of electrocution and the safety of particular electric currents. Beware the 'filaments of death', said the worrywarts of the day.

There were also concerns about privacy. Electric light could illuminate when women and children were home alone, posing a risk to their safety from any predatory watchers hiding in the bushes.

5 of 10 aussiegall, Creative Commons


5. The telephone

In the 18th century, the invention of the telephone sparked yet more concerns. These disembodied voices coming down the wire took a lot of getting used to. A chief fear was that use of telephones would tear apart the fabric of society by removing the need for people to meet face-to-face. Other worries included the notion that phones would make people lazy or deaf, or that telephones would attract evil spirits, or thunder and lightning, or give the user an electric shock - or just send them mad. Preachers dubbed them 'instruments of the devil'.

6 of 10 joe goldberg, Creative Commons

TVs broadcasting

6. Broadcasting

If disembodied voices put society on edge, pictures flying invisibly through the air were always going to cause waves.

Television brought a new fear too: the fear of brainwashing. In its more modern incarnation this has become a fear of dumbing down - that watching TV makes people stupid or, in the case of the video nasty, violent and brutish. TV has also been blamed for causing moral degradation by exposing young people to overtly sexual imagery. That's not all either: the tube has been blamed for creating a generation of couch potatoes - so it's bad for your health too.

7 of 10 Chris Moore, Creative Commons

video games

7. Video games

In recent years, the violent video game has largely replaced the video nasty as the tech target of moral condemnation.

Video games are frequently charged with being too addictive - creating violent addicts who are alienated from the rest of society. And if video gamers aren't hurting other people, games are hurting them - gamers are apparently regularly so addicted they forget to eat or sleep.

8 of 10 Ginny, Creative Commons


8. The internet

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the internet itself is an ongoing source of moral panic.

Today's popular concerns include the amorphous fear that the internet somehow rots your brain. The internet is apparently destroying our ability to contemplate the deep and serious issues of the day. As a result of exposure to so much data, we're now mental channel-hoppers, only capable of laughing at cat videos and writing inane comments on YouTube.

Other fears attached to the web are that having access to so many distractions at every digital twist and turn is ruining our ability to concentrate, making us a distracted generation too, possessed of the mental longevity of goldfish. Thanks internets.

9 of 10 Dominik Syka, Creative Commons

mobile phone

9. Mobile phones

Mobile phones have been in the dock too. Mobile-related moral panics include textspeak - with its 'c u l8r' and 'lol'. Thanks to SMS, the theory goes, kids are losing the ability to spell.

Texting is not the first technology to generate this fear though. More than a hundred years before mobile phones arrived on the scene, society was worrying about the telegraph's impact on language. Like texting, telegrams were replete with abbreviations. O rly? Ya rly.

Mobile phones have also been accused of frying people's brains and causing cancer tumours owing to the electromagnetic fields emitted when in use. This fear persists despite a general lack of scientific evidence to support such claims.

10 of 10 Sebastian Küpers, Creative Commons

social networking

10. Social networking

The most recent tech-related moral panic concerns social networking. Facebook et al have been critiqued for being too addictive - for snowballing into an out-of-control obsession that takes something away from the rest of life.

Other fears include social networking degrading our ability to relate to people in real life by reducing our emotional depth and turning us into narcissists and voyeurists. Social networking has also been charged with breaking up marriages and encouraging stalking.

More recently still, the finger was pointed at BBM, the BlackBerry Messenger IM tool, for inciting riots in the UK. The very fabric of society was - apparently - being torn apart through the humble medium of instant messaging.

Related Galleries

Holiday wallpaper for your phone: Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's, and winter scenes
Holiday lights in Central Park background

Related Galleries

Holiday wallpaper for your phone: Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's, and winter scenes

21 Photos
Winter backgrounds for your next virtual meeting
Wooden lodge in pine forest with heavy snow reflection on Lake O'hara at Yoho national park

Related Galleries

Winter backgrounds for your next virtual meeting

21 Photos
Holiday backgrounds for Zoom: Christmas cheer, New Year's Eve, Hanukkah and winter scenes
3D Rendering Christmas interior

Related Galleries

Holiday backgrounds for Zoom: Christmas cheer, New Year's Eve, Hanukkah and winter scenes

21 Photos
Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6: Electric vehicle extravaganza

Related Galleries

Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6: Electric vehicle extravaganza

26 Photos
A weekend with Google's Chrome OS Flex

Related Galleries

A weekend with Google's Chrome OS Flex

22 Photos
Cybersecurity flaws, customer experiences, smartphone losses, and more: ZDNet's research roundup

Related Galleries

Cybersecurity flaws, customer experiences, smartphone losses, and more: ZDNet's research roundup

8 Photos
Inside a fake $20 '16TB external M.2 SSD'
Full of promises!

Related Galleries

Inside a fake $20 '16TB external M.2 SSD'

8 Photos