What Did People Think Of Old Technologies When They Were New?

As Mark Twain said: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."  But I’ve observed before that it seems we lose our sense of history when thinking about new technology.  

A good corrective is a 25-year old classic book by University of Pennsylvania Professor Carolyn Marvin.  Its title is "When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electronic Communications In The Late Nineteenth Century” and it recalls the days when the telegraph, telephone, even electric lights, were the exciting new technologies.

(Although this post if focused on one aspect, the book as a whole provides a broad-ranging historical view of the interplay of communications technologies and society.)

Here are some excerpts that sound a lot like what we hear now about the Internet, social media, texting, etc.

Concerns About Privacy

She notes how people were worried that “intimate family secrets would be displayed to the world” and ask “How would family members keep personal information to themselves?”

Concerns About Family Breakdown

Harper’s in 1893 felt that “Public amusements increase in splendor and frequency, but private joys grow rare and difficult, and even the capacity for them seems to be withering.”

The Web Brings The World To You

From an 1889 article in the Electrical Review: “the time will come when so far as seeing objects are concerned, one can make a tour of Europe without going out of his own house.”

The Non-Stop News Cycle From Everywhere

From an editor of another magazine: “things [news events] are done in a dozen hours, and in another dozen men are talking … of these great events, not only in Paris and Berlin, but in the mosques of Cairo, … in the shops of Sydney … and at the same instant of time every human heart is quivering with shock of these great events…  All corners of the earth are joined, kindled, fused.”

Attitudes Of Some Executives Of The Phone Company

She notes that the Bell Company wasn’t really interested in widespread adoption, but preferred “a limited service at high prices”.

Piracy And Hacking

The magazine, Electrical Review, complained: “The telephone is apparently looked upon as a public convenience, and quite often in smaller cities a single telephone is expected to answer for an entire block”.

Technological Utopianism, Often Attributed To Internet Leaders

She quotes from the Scientific American in 1880 about how the telephone will lead to: “nothing less than a new organization of society – a state of things in which every individual, however secluded, will have at call every other individual”

How The Global Network Leads To Peace And Freedom

She quotes Nicolas Tesla in 1904 about how wireless (radio) communications can be: “efficient in enlightening the masses, particularly in still uncivilized countries”.  And his earlier statement: “It is by abolishing all the barriers which separate nations and countries that civilization is best furthered.”

What lessons about new technologies would you draw from the old?  How will people think about today’s new technologies a hundred years from now?

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


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