It is always the next technology which is going to precipitate social collapse. Yet somehow the social collapse has never quite happened (though maybe next time…). More than that, last year’s (or last century’s) threat to society becomes this year’s golden age.

So from a splendid compendium of moral panics by Tom Standage, we learn that:

The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge.

That was written in 1790. Today, those who attribute remarkably similar effects to computer games or to social media yearn for the golden age when children read novels instead of corrupting their minds and their morals through the pernicious influence of newer technologies (Susan Greenfield is a particularly fine example of this phenomenon – entertain yourself in passing with this useful guide to writing one of her articles).

Every time we look back, the moral panic looks ridiculous. Every time we look forward, for some it feels all too real. Can wisdom really only come with hindsight?

And yet of course, looked at another way, each of these (and many other) technology changes has precipitated a form of social collapse – but this is overwhelmingly a good thing, not a bad thing. Few of us would prefer to live in the world of 1790, free of the taint of novel reading, safe from the licentiousness of the waltz, but locked into a rigid social stratification and a world where even the richest lacked so much we take for granted. That’s not to say that social (and economic and political) disruption is pain free or to indulge in a crude teleological view of past and present. But I am pretty clear that the fact that, as I write this, my son is refining his understanding of three dimensional gravitational dynamics through the medium of Kerbal space program is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Next year keeps coming. It has done relentlessly since well before 1790, and will again a few hours from now. We are not obliged to fear the future.

All of that is prompted by a timeline illustrating the fear of the new from 1494 to 2010, of which a small part appears at the top of this post – click on it to see the whole thing. Or you can buy the book it is taken from, which is to be published next week.

Update November 2015

Not for the first time, XKCD provides a perfect summary:

 

Comments

  1. The future has also always been a place for equally uncritical optimism – paranoid moral panic, yes but also the unchecked enthusiam of the people who bought health products based on radium.

    Maybe there is more to be learned from the mistakes made by the enthusiasts and early adopters, but while I’ve seen a number of similar moral panic trackers, I’ve not yet seen a timeline that shows the enthusiasts and their views alongside.

    Perhaps such a timeline might show us people are looking in the wrong place when they focus on the technology. Is it the uses we put the technology to that have moral consequences, not the medium itself?

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