Technology Changes, Human Desire Doesn’t

I’ve said before that the War on (Some People’s) Drugs is destined to be a failure because it is, at bottom, a war on human desire. People will always look for ways to feel better, to escape the horror/dreariness/boredom of their daily lives, or to just slip away for a little while. Why else do we, as a species, keep coming up with ways to mess with our brains? See my current favorite example, the prevalence of “ether frolics” in the late 19th Century.

The same is true when it comes to technology, but in reverse. Almost anytime people freak out about how some new technological development is going to send the world straight to hell in a hand basket, chances are they’re not being very original. The same complaints have happened before when technology we now don’t give a second thought about was new and perceived as dangerous.

Amanda Hess at Slate has a good example of how, regardless of technological means, human desire is fairly constant. Riffing on a series of think pieces about the evils of Tinder, the hookup app, she goes back more than 150 years to a similar piece about the evils of a then-new technology – the private post office box:

In 1860s Manhattan, young men and women in search of some excitement could duck into a little stationery shop uptown, open the unmarked notebook on the counter, and scribble a message to all the other strangers who were in on the secret.

* * *

Beneath each note, the author had scribbled the address of the nearest post office. Now any man who found himself smitten with the writing of Blanche G. or Annie B. could send the girl a private note to the post office, where her father couldn’t intercept it.

Think of it as Tinder for the pre-steampunk crowd!

A man named George Elliot was having nothing of it. In a book called The Women of New York (which sounds like an app in and of itself) he wrote, as Hess explains:

This postal personal-ad operation, Ellington sneered, could only appeal to ‘a certain class of people of the metropolis—more particularly the classes known as the demi-monde, the fast men and the women who are inclined to a rapid life.’ Ellington hardly deemed these men worth mentioning, but he filled a 650-page volume with opinions on the women he believed were destroying the moral fiber of society with their whoring. Though these women ‘outwardly appear to enjoy their various midnight revelries,’ Ellington diagnosed their private condition as ‘blasé and tired of everything.’

The point is not to laugh at Elliot’s ridiculous notions about the place of women. It’s to recognize that technological moral panic is a recurring theme throughout history. More than likely there were people who thought Guttenberg was going to hell for inventing movable type. Certainly it’s true that similar panics accompanied the early days of the telegraph, telephone, television, and the internet.

Why should mobile apps be any different? And in a few years we’ll find some other technological gizmo upon which to fixate and declare how it, too, shall ruin society just like all its predecessors didn’t.


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