Did the technology invasion begin with the invention of the phonograph?

Posted at 4:40 PM, Oct 16, 2014

Today I read a fascinating but extremely harsh editorial in The New York Times, one you most certainly missed. The topic was the potential effects of communications technology on privacy, sociability and civility.

We’re being overrun with amplifiers.  “The result will be the complete disorganization of society,” the Times said. Increasingly, people will “flee from civilization and seek in the silence of the forest relief from the roar…” The last thing we need is more and louder talk:

“This country has long suffered from excessive talk. Had nine-tenths of our citizens who have been born during the last fifty years been absolutely dumb, the Republic would doubtless have preserved its pristine purity. It is the interminable talk of Congressmen and other leading citizens that is the source of our public woes.”

Hear, hear!

The editorial ran on Monday – Monday, March 25, 1878. But I just caught up with it.

The technology being condemned was the phonograph and the aerophone, which I believe was some kind of amplifier or booster. But the villain was their inventor. Get this lead:

“Something ought to be done to Mr. EDISON, and there is a growing conviction that it had better be done with a hemp rope. Mr. EDISON has invented too many things, and almost without exception they are things of the most deleterious character.”

So interesting point #1: If you think journalism is nasty now, you don’t know nasty. The Times here is basically calling for Edison to be hung. 

Interesting point #2: Technophobia has a long history of hysteria and awful prognostication. Here’s the Times take on Edison and his damnable phonograph:

“Recently he invented the phone- graph, a machine that catches the lightest whisper of conversation and stores it up, so that at any future time it can be brought out, to the confusion of the original speaker. This machine will eventually destroy all confidence between man and man, and render more dangerous than ever woman's want of confidence in woman. No man can feel sure that wherever he may be there is not a concealed phonograph remorseless gathering up his remarks and ready to reproduce them at some future date. Who will be willing, even in the bosom of his family, to express any but most innocuous and colorless views and what woman when calling on a female friend, and waiting for the latter to make her appearance in the drawing-room, will dare to express her opinion of the wretched taste displayed in the furniture, or the hideous appearance of the family photographs? In the days of persecution and it was said, though with poetical exaggeration, that the walls had ears.”

The zaniness of this will be of no comfort to those of us worried about the NSA tapping our iPads.  Nor should it be.

I came across this antique on a site called Techdirt that is new to me, unfortunately, because it is full of interesting writing. Mike Masnick says the Times piece is a classic example of what he calls “moral panic” – hyperbolic, overheated fears about new technology. He is concerned there is too much moral panic about technology today as well and the blog has some good writing on this. A good example is an essay called, “Technology Doesn't Make Us Less Social; It Just Changes The Way We Socialize.”

I am sure he’s right. But I am more inclined to worry much more about techno-utopians than technophobes these days. There are certainly more of them. But lynching seems a tad extreme.