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Technology and Moral Panic 262

Posted by samzenpus
from the women-and-children-first dept.
pbahra writes "Why do some technologies cause moral panic and others don't? Why was the introduction of electricity seen as a terrible thing, while nobody cared much about the fountain pen? According to Genevieve Bell, the director of Intel Corporation's Interaction and Experience Research, we have had moral panic over new technology for pretty well as long as we have had technology. It is one of the constants in our culture. '... moral panic is remarkably stable and it is always played out in the bodies of children and women,' she said. There was, she says, an initial pushback about electrifying homes in the U.S.: 'If you electrify homes you will make women and children vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them. So electricity is going to make women vulnerable. Oh and children will be visible too and it will be predators, who seem to be lurking everywhere, who will attack.' 'There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women's bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed,' she says."
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Technology and Moral Panic

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  • I don't really believe this theory about changing relationship to time, space and other people. Personally I find it more to be about understanding. I am always cautious of things I don't understand. From computer software to mechanical things to ... well, anything at all. Those five hour energy drinks? Not for me. Probably safe. But I don't understand it so I'm not doing it. Do they change my relationship to time, space and other people? Not at all.

    And I think that's where moral panic comes from. Why even call it "moral panic" when it's really just a matter of a large amount of change coming from something that's hard to understand sparking extreme caution and sometimes panic. World of Warcraft is really scary to older people who don't play it. Electricity is really scary to people who don't understand it. Hell, it'd look like magic to me if I had never encountered it before. And your knee-jerk reaction is caution.

    I think simply informing people alleviates this and -- in some cases like cellular phones -- when you can't effectively communicate to the masses you will suffer from this panic.
    • by gman003 (1693318) on Monday July 11, 2011 @11:18AM (#36720778)

      I think simply informing people alleviates this.

      The problem is that, for some people, "information" is seen as the enemy. You see this mainly in fundamentalist countries (eg. Iran) and dictatorships or generally repressive regimes (eg. North Korea), but it also shows up in many reactionary political groups. They actively reject "data" and "logic", and take pride in that. For a particularly tragic example, look at the American Tea Party - when presented with evidence that contradicts their views, they don't claim the evidence is wrong, but that evidence, logic and science are wrong.

      That's why American politics will ultimately be the death of America. Modern American politics is based on taking an issue and making it an emotional rallying point. When an issue is purely a technical or logical one, it gets solved rapidly (by government standards) and easily (by government standards). But once an issue has been made into a political one, all hope of it being actually resolved is lost. Look at, for instance, abortion. Simple logical issue - do we consider a fetus a full human, or merely an extension of the mother's body? You can argue both sides, more so than you can in most issues, but with educated and rational people, you could reach some common consensus. But now that it's a political point, logic and rationale are thrown out the window - you get people vaguely gesturing at religious texts (but unable to actually point to somewhere where it specifically says anything relevant), you get people highlighting extreme cases, and ultimately something that should be a minor issue is one of the big points on every cadnidate's platform. It's gotten so bad that the laws are actually contradictory - for purposes of medical procedures, it goes one way, but for purposes of homicide it goes another. it's gotten so bad that we have people bombing each other over, essentially, a philosophical debate. All because American politicians need some banner to wave if they want to get elected.

      Honestly, in the current environment here, you can't engage the public in a logical manner, can't rely on informing the public of the facts and letting them decide. If you want to get anything done, you have to proactively and preemptively make it a political emotional point. Which, ultimately, only continues the problem, but hopefully within a few generations all the emotional die-hards will have died (hard, if necessary), and things will get back to normal.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by c6gunner (950153)

        The problem is that, for some people, "information" is seen as the enemy .... For a particularly tragic example, look at the American Tea Party - when presented with evidence that contradicts their views, they don't claim the evidence is wrong, but that evidence, logic and science are wrong.

        I don't particularly like the tea party, but I gotta say I think you're completely out to lunch on this one. Every fringe group I've seen - from the 9/11 deniers, to the UFO nuts, to the Global Warming deniers (tea party) - ALL attempt to cloak themselves with the pretense of facts and science. Of course, they're completely wrong, and what they're doing doesn't come close to real science, but that's beside the point - I've yet to see any of these groups "claim that evidence, logic and science are wrong".

        I

    • It's not that simple, it's not one thing.

      There is lack of understanding, and there is also fear of a big change, fear of losing the status quo. And the bigger the change, the bigger the fear.

      Now, I'm just speculating (like the author of the article is doing), but I'd say that fear of the actions of other people has the biggest impact. New technology makes everyone powerful. It makes you powerful, but it also makes everyone else powerful. If there is a railway, your daughter might take the railway and go to

      • And I forgot to add something that's probably even more important.

        It's not understanding, because quite honestly we don't understand anything. If it was understanding, we would be in constant panic. It's something unusual and unexpected, different enough that our instincts and/or experience can't cope with it, things that you need to understand to grasp. You don't need to understand how a fountain pen works to use one and understand all intricacies, at worst you could fear that the ink could be poison. But

    • by Moraelin (679338) on Monday July 11, 2011 @11:48AM (#36721186) Journal

      Actually, I don't think it's just misunderstanding. There are historical examples of people having moral panics or outrages over things that didn't involve any special maths to understand.

      E.g., the funniest was one monk having a long rant against the printing press, back in Gutenberg's days. Among other things, apparently copying books by hand builds character and appreciation, according to him, so obviously this newfangled printing press will cause some generations of wimps and illiterates. Actually it was one factor that caused literacy and access to literature to go up.

      I don't think he needed any special knowledge to understand what a printing press does. He just feared the change it would cause.

      But an even more common factor is: follow the money. You'll find that a lot of scaremongering over new technologies can be traced to people fearing:

      A. Loss of income. Remember the whole scare campaign the Edison waged against AC, just because he stood to lose sales of his DC generators that had to be placed every couple of houses. That was sales of thousands of generators he stood to lose, should people switch to AC.

      The same can be seen for many other scares. E.g., TV and radio stations making scare stories about computer games? Oh gee, I wonder why that is... ;)

      Even in the case of bringing electricity to homes that is quoted in TFA, remember that there was a whole industry to supply lamp oil and/or gas for lighting. A couple of electrical wires and lightbulbs would have put them out of business. And historically it did. Quick: how many whaling companies are there in the west to supply whale oil for lamps? None, eh? Well, now you know why they raised a stink and dressed it in some moral outrage BS.

      B. Loss of status symbols.

      Sometimes if I can get X while the Joneses can't get X, it's a symbol that I'm better than the Joneses. It can be a fur coat for the missus, or a sports car, or historically affording a well lit home or a book. Or whatever. What matters is that I have something that the Joneses can't afford. Historically we even once made a fashion thing to be deathly pale, to make a "look, I can afford to stay indoors all day, while the Joneses work in the fields" status point, and switched to it being fashionable to be tanned when most jobs moved indoors, so now the better point was "look, I can afford to go to the beach". Etc.

      So, yes, expect a lot of people to oppose anything that would lower the price of something and devalue its status symbol value. If the Joneses can get X too, then my having X isn't worth any status symbol points any more.

      Look at electricity and lit homes again. At one point having a well lit home was a status symbol. The poor would have at most a candle or small lamp and spend all evening clustered around it, while the rich could flaunt their having a whole mansion lit like day. The prospect that in a few years every plebeian could have the same... you can see how that would make a lot of ad hoc "moralists" raise a stink.

      Only of course, they can't just come out and say, "you fucking plebs should fucking stay in the dark so I can keep bragging about affording light!!!" They had to pack it in some "it's for your own good" kind of bullshit.

    • by steelfood (895457)

      It probably isn't unwise to be cautious about things that are poorly understood. But that caution should be backed by a desire to understand further, rather than unchecked, stiffling panic. The former is what truly distinguishes humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom, while the latter is merely more of the same.

      The latest and greatest example of this is how we're handing cell phones versus how we handle autism. There are a lot of experiments into whether cell phones cause cancer or not. And people are

  • by HangingChad (677530) on Monday July 11, 2011 @10:31AM (#36720160) Homepage

    'There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women's bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed,' she says"

    Yeah, nothing worse than riding on the bus or a train when, all of a sudden, whoa flying uterus!

    • by Cro Magnon (467622) on Monday July 11, 2011 @10:37AM (#36720256) Homepage Journal

      I think I read that people once thought that the air would rush out of a train moving over 21 MPH, suffocating all the passengers.

      • by hedwards (940851)

        Crichton wrote a bit about that in "The Great Train Robbery" where the burglar is planning to walk on top of a train that's going freeway speeds. Believing that he'll deal with suction down onto the top and wholly misunderstanding the consequences of falling of the train. Not to mention failure to bring a change of clothes for the ones that got all sooty.

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday July 11, 2011 @10:53AM (#36720452) Journal
      I've always found it (darkly) humorous that the precious, precious, Women and Children! are terribly delicate flowers whenever a technology that makes society squeamish comes up; but are magically judged fit for whatever duty is required when it is in our interest:

      50MPH train ride? Clear and present danger of uterine escape! Unremitting and dubiously voluntary childbirth, with a side of pre-appliance housework, from age 15? As nature intended!

      Electric lighting? Probably a paedophile lurking behind every bush, stoking their vile lusts with children's silhouettes in the newly lit windows. Coal needs mining? A child on all fours should be able to pull a loaded cart through a tunnel only a couple of feet high, think of the savings on digging costs!
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Vatican is still againt condoms !!!!!!

  • Freaks and Wackos (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Overzeetop (214511) on Monday July 11, 2011 @10:32AM (#36720174) Journal

    There will always be somebody that gets freaked out by something they don't understand. Humans can be herded very easily with fear. Just look at the US political system.

  • BS (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The reasons listed in this study are a lie. Electrifying homes had other reasons for scaring people than whats said here. Go read about Tesla and Edison, why are modern studies filled with such dribble? Especially American ones?

    • Go read about Tesla and Edison

      Please provide more specific references and summarise what they say.

      • War of the Currents (Score:5, Informative)

        by Comboman (895500) on Monday July 11, 2011 @10:48AM (#36720374)

        War of Currents [wikipedia.org]

        Edison carried out a campaign to discourage the use[13] of alternating current, including spreading disinformation on fatal AC accidents, publicly killing animals, and lobbying against the use of AC in state legislatures. Edison directed his technicians, primarily Arthur Kennelly and Harold P. Brown,[14] to preside over several AC-driven killings of animals, primarily stray cats and dogs but also unwanted cattle and horses. Acting on these directives, they were to demonstrate to the press that alternating current was more dangerous than Edison's system of direct current.[15] He also tried to popularize the term for being electrocuted as being "Westinghoused". Years after DC had lost the "war of the currents," in 1902, his film crew made a movie of the electrocution with high voltage AC, supervised by Edison employees, of Topsy, a Coney Island circus elephant which had recently killed three men.[16]

        Edison opposed capital punishment, but his desire to disparage the system of alternating current led to the invention of the electric chair. Harold P. Brown, who was being secretly paid by Edison, built the first electric chair for the state of New York to promote the idea that alternating current was deadlier than DC.[17]

        When the chair was first used, on August 6, 1890, the technicians on hand misjudged the voltage needed to kill the condemned prisoner, William Kemmler. The first jolt of electricity was not enough to kill Kemmler, and only left him badly injured. The procedure had to be repeated and a reporter on hand described it as "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging." George Westinghouse commented: "They would have done better using an axe."[18]

      • by Smallpond (221300)

        I think I can sum it up: "Touching electrical wires kills you"

        Nothing to do with predators, thanks. Westinghouse and Edison [wikipedia.org] had a well publicized battle over which killed you worse - AC or DC.

      • by Muad'Dave (255648)

        Edison helped electrocute Topsy the Elephant [wikipedia.org] (text plus horrific video link) to show how dangerous Tesla's AC was. He was promoting 'safe' DC [wired.com] at the time.

    • by Verdatum (1257828)
      While I don't really count this article as a scientific study, your question reminds me of the recent Slashdot entry: Why We Have So Much "Duh" Science [slashdot.org]
  • Long ago, an author published a long screed against the evils of pens, that they made writing too easy. You didn't have to lug around heavy clay tablets, papyrus was wasted when words couldn't be edited like tablets could before they were baked. Heck, you didn't even need an oven.

    After publication, his editor received several spiteful singing telegrams from greyhairs complaining that his drivel was published, as evidence was clear that writing itself was making people stupid and forgetful.

  • Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed

    Won't someone please think of the uteruses!!

    • by Smallpond (221300)

      Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed

      Won't someone please think of the uteruses!!

      I'm trying not to.

  • If you want to know about sociology or psychology... talk to a lady that works for Intel.

    Seriously, reading that article made me think she gets her info from Slashdot comments - "oh noes, thinks of the CHILDREN". And I bet she doesn't read the articles either.

  • by walterbyrd (182728) on Monday July 11, 2011 @10:44AM (#36720342)

    Have you ever noticed that many movies are made about new technologies? In the 1950s it was all about nuclear and/or space travel. Later we had stuff about bio-technology like Andromeda Strain , and Jurasic Park. In the original movie, Frankenstein was brought to life by electricity, in the origianal book it was chemistry. As computers, and internet progress, we get movies like "War Games" and "Colossues."

    • by Verdatum (1257828) on Monday July 11, 2011 @10:51AM (#36720418)
      Shame on you. Frankenstein's Monster. Frankenstein is the Doctor's name. He was brought to life in the traditional manner.
      • by khr (708262)

        Shame on you. Frankenstein's Monster. Frankenstein is the Doctor's name. He was brought to life in the traditional manner.

        I'll admit, it's been a couple of decades since I read Frankenstein but do we know that Dr. Frankenstein was brought to life in the traditional manner? Did Shelley specify that, or is it just an assumption because of not mentioning he was brought to life in any other manner?

      • The mad scientist is named Victor Frankenstein, and I don't remember him having his doctorate when he created the monster. The monster gives himself the name Adam, but he is Victor's "son" (in a way), so I guess the name Adam Frankenstein isn't too far off the mark.
      • Frankenstein is the Doctor's name. He was brought to life in the traditional manner.

        Yeah in the original. In Frankenstein Squared: Dark Side of the Moon and Predjudice, Dr Frankenstein was created in a lab by Go-Bots Vampires to fight the Autobot zombie hordes and entertain Mr. Darcy with droll stories of creating life from corpses.

    • It's been a while since I read Frankenstein, but I think electricity had some hand in giving the monster life. After all, Mary Shelley was inspired to write the book from the electrical experiments of Galvani [ieeeghn.org].
      • It's been a while since I read Frankenstein, but I think electricity had some hand in giving the monster life. After all, Mary Shelley was inspired to write the book from the electrical experiments of Galvani [ieeeghn.org].

        Yep, "Galvanism" in biology is the contraction of muscle via electrical current and is what (I think) Shelley generally referred to electricity in the book as. Apparently very similar real life experiments using dead tissue were carried out in the day. A Dr. Wilkinson was one such experimenter, but it might have been a German physician and alchemist by the name of Dippel that Shelley more closely modeled Dr. Frankenstein after.
        No wonder some people freaked out about it.

    • by canajin56 (660655) on Monday July 11, 2011 @11:26AM (#36720874)
      Actually, Dr. Frankenstein never explains how he animated Adam, for fear that his work could be duplicated. But he says that he came to his discovery while studying galvanism (the effect of electricity on muscles).
  • Semantics (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PPH (736903) on Monday July 11, 2011 @10:50AM (#36720404)

    Its a panic because it represents a change. And people don't do well with change. Its moral because we can't come up with a reasoned argument not to do it, or at least to take it slowly. Making things a moral issue creates a taboo that we are not supposed to question. Or we might be on the slippery slope to having sex with animals or some such nonsense.

    When I hear 'panic', I step back and weigh the pros and cons. When I hear 'moral', I start looking for a group seeking to control society to suit their own agendas.

    • by bkaul01 (619795)

      Its moral because we can't come up with a reasoned argument not to do it, or at least to take it slowly. Making things a moral issue creates a taboo that we are not supposed to question. Or we might be on the slippery slope to having sex with animals or some such nonsense.

      ... When I hear 'moral', I start looking for a group seeking to control society to suit their own agendas.

      Or, perhaps, molesting children isn't immoral because someone is looking to control society or being irrational, but because it's just inherently (and rationally) wrong! I'm not saying that raising a panic over innocuous technologies is good, but rationally thinking about whether a given development is actually a moral good or evil is beneficial. The assumption here that morality is a sham is flawed, I think ...

      • by PPH (736903)

        The assumption here that morality is a sham is flawed

        It is when it is used to prevent an objective examination of the impact of some new technology (or any change, for that matter). Specifically, when it is invoked to cause a 'panic'.

        Fundamentally, morality is a code of behavior that proscribes interactions in a society. But given technologies' ability to change the nature of these interactions, it is inevitable that morality will change.

        If you don't want predators seeing women and children at home as a result of electric illumination, close the curtains.

  • can be viewed as an invasion of privacy

    an invasion of privacy invokes the ancient primate evolutionary panic of some other male inseminating the female you are paired with, which means you are stuck devoting all of your time and resources raising some other man's child

    so yes, the battlefield is the woman's body when it comes to fear of the unknown, and especially something that is sticking tendrils into your house or creeping out over the ether and grabbing and inseminating YOUR WOMAN

    AAAAAAAHHHHH

  • Transference (Score:4, Interesting)

    by petes_PoV (912422) on Monday July 11, 2011 @11:04AM (#36720596)

    it is always played out in the bodies of children and women,

    This sounds like "I'm not worried for myself, but I am concerned of the effect <whatever> could have on other people". So men would transfer their fears, ignorance and paranoia onto concern for womem. Women would transfer it onto children (and presumably children would transfer it onto the family dog). I'd guess that a significant proportion of people are simply resitant to change. Not because they necessarily like living in the dark, suffering from deficiency diseases or being socially isolatedd. It's just that they've learned to cope with those conditions (and more importantly: they recognise that everyone else is no better off than they are). When change happens, it's possible that other people will get to grips with it, or exploit it's value before they do - or they are shown up to be stupid by their lack of understanding - sooner than they do, leaving them at a disadvantage.

    Since they can't admit their own fears, they express them as concern for others. Presumably people whom they consider inferior (physically, or in some other way) and can therefore show their compassion and concern, while still pursuing their intention of preventing other people from gaining an advantage over themselves.

    • Re:Transference (Score:5, Informative)

      by dkleinsc (563838) on Monday July 11, 2011 @12:25PM (#36721810) Homepage

      That's not quite the entire story though.

      One not-very-surprising conclusion of psychological research is that parents will do just about anything that they think will benefit their children, even if they're suicidal. Parent's love of their kids basically short-circuits the reasoning part of their brain. Love of the spouse is not quite as strong, but still very effective at short-circuiting reasoning.

      Why does that matter? Because it means that if somebody wants to short-circuit the reasoning part of your brain, one way to do it is to present the threat or benefit as being to your children or spouse. That's why there's massive amounts of BS tossed around as "for the children" and "to protect women": the last thing you want a propaganda target doing is thinking carefully.

  • by dpbsmith (263124) on Monday July 11, 2011 @11:12AM (#36720704) Homepage

    Disruption afford opportunities for opportunists, and some of them are dishonest. Balances worked out over many decades that represent some kind of rough fairness between competing interests are brushed aside in a twinkling, and the new technology creates a chance for early colonizers to make a successful power grab. The ordinary citizens understands intuitively that new technology is used against him first, then checks and balances are worked out later.

  • by br00tus (528477)

    Thalidomide. Asbestos. Lead paint. "More Doctors smoke Camels".

    Corporate America doesn't give a damn what garbage it can unload on the public, or how safe it is, as long as it can make a profit. People are smart to be wary. Once bitten, twice shy.

    Of course the Wall Street Journal doesn't give a damn either. And of course it will throw mud at the public who show the least bit hesitancy to the garbage Corporate America wants to shovel out, wondering what psychological problems they might have to want a

  • Change is being seen or spin doctored if somebody looses power. Like:

    -Trains pose a economic threat to anybody who want to transport people by horse-carriages.

    -electricity poses a threat to people who distribute energy in another way

    -the internet poses a threat to people who possess already other media

    -green energy poses a threat to everybody who invested in traditional power plants

     

  • by odin84gk (1162545) on Monday July 11, 2011 @11:25AM (#36720868)

    I grew up in a heavily conservative environment. Each new piece of technology was seen as a new way for the devil to attack, signaling the arrival of the anti-christ. This included...
    Credit cards: Banks want you to use credit cards because it assigns you a number, and numbering the people was something that the anti-christ did.
    ATM Machines: Something about not carrying cash was evil. Not sure what that was about.
    RFID: They want to implant them into your body. The resulting scar was the mark of the beast.

    If they couldn't find a rational reason to explain their fear of a new technology, they blamed it on the anti-christ.

  • My favorite "protect the women" argument has to do with the introduction of anesthesia in the 19th Century. Use of ether or chloroform, while risky, began to receive widespread acceptance after its introduction in the 1840's, and any number of physicians and surgeons worked to perfect it. One in particular, John Snow, recognized its possibilities during childbirth. He developed techniques for cutting back on pain (analgesia) without knocking the prospective mother out completely. Queen Victoria is known to have employed him for several of her numerous deliveries. [ucla.edu]

    His work was raved against in many pulpits because it was perceived to be in violation of the book of Genesis, which states "you will bring forth your children in sorrow." Fortunately, rationality in tandem with numerous upper-crust British ladies, eventually prevailed.

  • The author of the article clearly has no background in history and is just making stuff up.
    In London by 1736, the streets were lit all night long.
    Gas and oil lamps were common in homes by the time the electric light was introduced. Oil Lamps
    had been around for 1000s of years. Then you also had these things called candles.
    There was moral panic about the safety of the electric wires but that has nothing to do with the authors argument

    • by Duradin (1261418)

      The typewriter would have been a "better" example than the fountain pen as the typewriter preceded the fountain pen by quite some time.

  • 'There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women's bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed,' she says."

    Well, 'she' needs to provide a citation. I'm having a hard time finding one. I suspect she's just making shit up.
  • To say that I am scared of X is to open one's self up to argument, facts, rationality, or even to ridicule.

    To say that X will frighten Y (where Y is a person or group seemingly deserving or in need of protection) makes one out to be a generous altruistic person. It also prevents any attempt at arguing the position because Y's behavior and beliefs can be whatever you want them to be in order to win the argument.

  • If I'm uncomfortable with a new technology (plastic, e-waste, cell phone, packaging, condoms) I could avoid them myself. The column, which is excellent, is trying to predict when the panic over "witches brews" of technology create a stampede, legislation, or environmentalist-locust mode of panic. I am not sure I buy the common correlations Genevieve Bell postulates about space and time. People have always been more afraid of plastic packaging than paper. It's interesting when a group in society becomes
  • by NeoMorphy (576507) on Monday July 11, 2011 @12:12PM (#36721548)

    Any technology advancements that can challenge religious beliefs are taboo!

    If bringing someone back from cryopreservation was made possible then it would raise serious questions about the state of the human soul while the body was in stasis. Teleportation also challenges the existance of the human soul. In "Star Trek", during dematerialization, is the body considered gone, freeing the soul to pass on, and then during rematerialization does the soul relize it's mistake and comes running back?

    Genetic engineering is considered playing God by many. While we might not be designing our next generation, we do check for genetic defects, and then potentially aborting when they are detected. Eventually, with in vitro fertilization, we can selectively choose the ones we like best, which is getting close to genetically engineering our kids.

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