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Don't Panic: Why Technophobes Have Been Getting It Wrong Since Gutenberg

Just about every time something new and different comes along -technological advances, that is- people get all uneasy, as if Skynet is about to take over. So many things that are unveiled as an improvement for our lives are regarded as taking us to hell in a hand basket. But it was that way for our ancestors, too. People were afraid of the telephone until they got used to it. It was seen as a device destined to power the downfall of society.

In 1909, sociologist Charles Horton Cooley wrote a typical critique of the telephone’s influence in his book Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind. “In our own life the intimacy of the neighborhood has been broken up by the growth of an intricate mesh of wider contacts which leaves us strangers to people who live in the same house. And even in the country the same principle is at work, though less obviously, diminishing our economic and spiritual community with our neighbors.”

In fact, the invention served many existing needs beyond its business-related functions, particularly helping to cement social bonds in an era when families and communities were physically spreading further apart. In his 1992 book on the adoption of the telephone, America Calling, Claude Fischer writes that “conversation, even gossip, is an important social process, serving to sustain social networks and build communities.”

Fischer’s analysis of three California communities during the initial expansion of telephone lines found that phones actually increased the strength of ties to both immediate and distant social networks. “The net trend was in the direction of greater attention to the outside world. Yet, rather than indicating a displacement of local interest, these changes suggest a simultaneous augmentation of local and extra-local activities,” Fischer explains. Technology allowed people to be more social than ever before.

We’ve heard the same arguments about television, video games, and the internet. But as time goes by, those technologies become ubiquitous and society manages to survive. Read about many other technological advances and how they were first received at Collectors Weekly.

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