“One of the first characteristics of the first era of any new form of communication is that those who live through it usually have no idea what they’re in.”Mitchell Stephens
New communications technologies don’t come with user’s manuals. They are primitive, while old tech is refined. So critics attack. The critic’s job is easier than the practitioner’s: they score with the fearful by comparing the infancy of the new medium with the perfected medium it threatens. But of course, the practitioner wins. In the end, we always assimilate to the new technology.
Here are 11 examples of fear and suspicion of new technology, spanning the history of communications.
Socrates, who never wrote, said that the invention of writing would produce forgetfulness and only a semblance of wisdom, but not truth or real judgment. His student Plato, writing on a scroll, agreed, saying that writing was a step backward for truth.
The best of the past is set against the worst of the present.Elizabeth Eisenstein
2. Bound Books.
The first commercially successful printing press operation started in 1458. The cultural elite of the day weren’t impressed. A prominent monk named Trithemius of Sponheim wrote in 1492, “Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices.” Why? “Because scribes display more diligence and industry than printers.” Even beneficiaries didn’t get its impact. Martin Luther wrote to the Pope in 1518, “It is a mystery to me how my theses were spread to so many places.”
3. Bound Books #2.
Philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm said in 1680, over 200 years after the invention of the printing press, that “the horrible mass of books that keeps growing might lead to a fall back into barbarism.”
4. Bound Books #3.
Presbyterian preacher Vicesimus Knox attacked the novel in 1778, more than 150 years after Don Quixote, saying that few students would study Homer or Virgil when they could read Tom Jones or “a thousand inferior or more dangerous novels.”
5. Bound Books #4.
In War and Peace, published in 1869, Leo Tolstoy writes that the “most powerful of ignorance’s weapons” is “the dissemination of printed matter.” That’s over 400 years after the press came along.
The problems continue with modern technology. In 1877, The New York Times wrote a ferocious attack against Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone for its invasion of privacy. One writer wrote, “We will soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.” The wealthy Mark Twain was the first in his town to put a phone in his house, yet passed on an opportunity to be an early investor, thinking it had no market.
Think Twitter is ridiculous? Spectator magazine worried about the “constant diffusion of statements in snippets,” too. Except they were commenting about the telegraph, in 1889.
Guglielmo Marconi thought he’d perfected “wireless technology” in 1895. He saw no further use for it. It took 25 years for people to realize the radio could be used not just for 1-on-1 communication, but for broadcasting. As the radio began to take off, he doubted the value of his work, asking, “Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?” Further, when Marconi invented wireless audio transmission, he wrote to the ministry of Post and Telegraphs, explaining his wireless telegraph machine and asking for funding. He never received a response to his letter. Instead, the minister referred Marconi to an insane asylum.
Actor Charlie Chaplin said in 1916, two years into his film career, “The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage.”
IBM Chairman and CEO Thomas J. Watson famously said in 1943, “There is a world market for about five computers.”
20th Century giant Daryl Zanuck said in 1946, “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
All references taken from The Rise of The Image, The Fall of the Word, by Mitchell Stephens.