The Eight Biggest Over-reactions to Technology of All-Time

October 07 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan / In association with Future
Category: Culture   Year: 2008   Rating: 11 Hot

Nothing gets humans up in arms like a new technology. Will it cure our ills and save us from destruction? Or end the world in one cataclysmic Earth-shattering moment? Clearly, no invention has accomplished either, but try telling that to the fanatical, hysterical or just plain irrational among us. Now, with technology advancing at an ever quickening pace, rational thinking is in short supply. Here then, to prove this point, are eight of the biggest freak-out moments in technology history:

Writing Will Make us Forget – Socrates

The written word and the ability to understand it is considered one of the most important developments ever achieved by mankind and a defining step for any civilization.  But not everyone was always a fan. Even that hero of western philosophy, Socrates, once argued that writing would make people lazy and forgetful!

“The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it,” said Socrates, “They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it’s not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered.”

Sound familiar? It is the same argument that some people nowadays are directing at both Google and the World Wide Web.

Given that pretty much every major advancement subsequent to the birth of writing is built on writing itself (collectively we have advanced much faster through the use of writing) it certainly did anything but make people lazy. Forgetful? Perhaps, on an individual level.  But I sure am glad Plato broke out his quill to write down Socrates’ teachings, lest I couldn’t “remember” to complain about him now.

Get Out of the Way, Here Comes the Train!

Reportedly, when the Lumiere Brothers showed their films for the first time at the Grand Cafe in Paris in 1895, audience members ran out of the room in a panic. Why? To avoid being hit by the image of a train pulling into a station!

This nicely illustrates how a technological advancement can produce experiences that are totally alien to us.  Having no basis by which to judge a completely unfamiliar experience, we naturally fear it, or at the very least, react inappropriately.  It is easy for us to laugh at those early movie patrons now, but chances are you will find yourself running away from a new technology in the near future. When you do, remember those first movie patrons and that sometimes the perceived threat just isn’t real.


Ah, Y2K. Remember the big Millennium scare? I’ll bet you do, and I’ll bet even more that you don’t want to.  Many people predicted the world was going to end. No joke, they actually did.  They believed power grids would black out; banks would lose all your money and that every computer on Earth would start flashing 12:00, or just 00 as it broke down, taking us back to the dark ages.  What actually occurred?  Absolutely nothing.  Oh, I’m sure there had to be some reprogramming done in the late nineties.  But if you listened to the news media at the time, you would have sworn that computers across the board just couldn’t be reprogrammed to solve this problem – they were all ticking time bombs waiting to explode!  January 1st, 2000, the worst problem was, as usual, an exceptionally bad New Year’s hangover.

The Internet is Dangerous!

As Annalee Newitz points out in this column, people often feel the Internet is a dark alley near a crack house, full of criminals, molesters and weirdos. And parents now seem more afraid of online sexual predators than real-life stranger danger.  I’ve seen “To Catch a Predator”.  I know there is some risk. But, really, when it comes to safety, the Internet is just like any other place. There are some areas you should stay away from; don’t give our your personal information to strangers; pay attention to where your kids go.  This is all common sense.  As Ms. Newitz says “In general, the Internet is a far safer place for kids and vulnerable people than almost anywhere else. As long as you don’t hand out your address to strangers, you’ve got a cushion of anonymity and protection online that you’ll never have in the real world.”

Nuclear Meltdown Madness

I remember Chernobyl.  I remember all those pictures of deformed fetuses, children and animals.  It all gave me nightmares as a kid. However, the simple fact of the matter is that times have changed and the technology has advanced. 

Nuclear reactors are now much smaller, much safer, much more efficient and can even recycle a lot of their own waste.  Take a look at this award winning reactor by UC Berkeley professor and scientist Ehud Greenspan.  We cannot afford to allow our knee-jerk reaction towards nuclear to keep us from harnessing safer nuclear in the future.  We are in the midst of an energy crisis and climate change has become a much bigger threat than any nuclear meltdown.  We must acknowledge the advancements in nuclear technology that have made it a safer, sustainable, clean, powerful source of energy.

The Large Hadron Collider will Kill us All!

I wrote about the strange reaction to the Large Hadron Collider last week. But to recap: two amateur physicists in Hawaii filed a lawsuit against CERN, the Department of Energy and others claiming the earth may be turned into a black hole by the LHC.  This lawsuit along with sensationalism over the ill-conceived nickname “God Particle” for the theoretical Higgs-Boson particle, sparked a world wide media frenzy. Several papers regurgitated “The God Machine” description and even more asked in their headlines asked “Will the Large Hadron Collider destroy the world?” Seriously, weapons of mass destruction have gotten less negative press than this beneficial research device.

Gaga for Google

Google has practically become synonymous for the World Wide Web itself and we should be careful not to confuse the two.  Google is not the World Wide Web. Google is just one part of that system. It is an important component, but it is just one enabling technology.  When Nicholas Carr, wrote his highly viral article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” what he really meant “Is widespread use of the world wide web making us stupid?”  There have been countless such malapropisms advanced in headlines recently, especially by traffic-hungry bloggers. This one popped up yesterday: “Secrets In The Cloud: A Case Against Google Indexing The World.” The author mentions Google in the article, but only as an example. The safety of cloud computing is his real subject, not Google, aka the most overused brand name in history.

The Singularity is Near!

I believe we are experiencing accelerating change and I respect Ray Kurzweil, but we can all take things too far.  In Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, he says the implications of the Singularity include “the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”  Forgive me if that sounds a bit like a magical afterlife offered by some technology-based religion, rather than a sound conclusion based on empirical data and observation.

Kevin Kelly sums it up best in his post on Thinkism: “The Singularity is an illusion that will be constantly retreating – always ‘near’ but never arriving.”

In Conclusion

Don’t panic.  Don’t buy into the hype.  Do your homework.  Keep your wits about you.  Technology will not make you a god nor end the world in a fiery inferno.  Thoughtful co-evolution with technology is the lesson of history and our best path towards the future. And yes, you can throw away those Y2k provisions now.

Comment Thread (9 Responses)

  1. It’s poignant that Google inspires the same fear of forgetfulness that the written word did some 2000 years (2KY:) ago

    Posted by: Jeff Hilford   October 08, 2008
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  2. Indeed. It’s interesting to hear neo-luddites argue against new technology in favor of books. It goes to show that such attitudes are more auto-emotional (surprise!) than thoughtful. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing. Technology inertia is very necessary for system stability. But it will result ingrowing pains and stretch marks as we move further into the acceleration era.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   October 08, 2008
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  3. Of course, I agree with the general view of skepticism (in fact this is a crucial part of scientific thinking), but I’d also be careful about giving the naysayers bullets to fire – I call them the “where’s my flying car” people. Typically, hype in the past meant visions of a Jetson’s lifestyle, but these people missed the communications and electronics revolutions.

    Imagine if someone in the 1950’s had said there would be a computer in every home. They would surely of been accused of absurd hype. Many observers said that the human genome project was hype, many of them professional scientists. Now we have the ‘thousand genome project’ for plants starting.

    I tend to think that it’s important that we focus on the right things. In the past, people focussed on the wrong things, which is why the ‘kitchen of 1999’ was supposed to have smart washing machines and toasters with a sense of humour. “where’s my flying car” etc.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   October 08, 2008
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  4. Personally, I still think the word is out on the LHC. I mean, it broke, so who knows for certain? Guess we’ll find out next summer.

    Posted by: John Heylin   October 08, 2008
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  5. The Singularity is fascinating but it won’t be an ‘event.’ It will be a period. I am more interested in nanotechnology and biotech. I think, in the long run, genetic engineering will be bigger than strong AI.

    I don’t think a lot of people are too keen on becoming a sentient robot. Repairing and regenerating the human machine will much more appealing to people.

    Posted by: Covus   October 08, 2008
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  6. When something is foreign and new, over-reactions happen all the time. It’s usually powered by fear because we’re generally scared of the unknown.

    Posted by: JohnNg   October 08, 2008
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  7. @John Heylin—really John? You think the LHC might actually be a threat?

    @CptSunbeam—I don’t intend to give the naysayers any bullets. Most of the examples I have given in this post are those of people not accepting technology when they should. I also believe the Singularity will probably occur at some point, I just don’t think it will cause our consciousness to expand outward at the speed of light. I agree more with Kelly’s view of it than with Kurzweil’s, but I am not naysayer, nor do I support them.

    @Covus—I agree. I would much rather rejuvenate my body than become a robot. In fact I would pass on being a robot all together.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   October 09, 2008
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  8. Mielle: Excellent post. I’d like to add a couple of over-reactions. The early detractors of pace-makers (implanting technology to assist the human heart) said some very outlandish things. Similarly, the American Medical Association (among others) opposed in-vitro fertilization on spurious grounds. I also believe opponents of cloning may be accused of taking an overly myopic view of the technology.

    Posted by: juldrich   October 15, 2008
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    Posted by: jeni   December 08, 2017
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