June 27, 2019

The Fallacy of Techno-Optimism

“When the telegraph revolutionized communication in the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau was scornful. “We are in a great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” he wrote, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Thoreau, it turned out, was wrong, but his skepticism of an invention that would ultimately prove beneficial has been a common response to change, both in the past and the present.

A fascinating collection of these responses exists on a podcast called Pessimists Archive, the episodes of which catalogue the unjustified fear that greeted innovations like the telephone (blamed at the time for degrading social life), the bicycle (blamed for various health maladies), and the novel (blamed for corrupting youth). The podcast presents these overreactions as cautionary tales for those who would question the fruits of Silicon Valley in the present, and its message has famous fans: Steven Pinker tweeted that the podcast is “invaluable in putting today’s tech moral panics in historical perspective.””

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