The first magazine I ever subscribed to was Smithsonian. As a kid, I devoured secondhand copies of Air & Space — and one of them featured a subscription card for Smithsonian, a sister publication. “Would you like to read articles on the following topics?” it read, and as I looked at the list of topics, I found myself saying “Yes. Yes, I would.”
I was too young to have had a bank account, so I pestered my folks and I think even gave them the $20 or whatever for a subscription. And so, off and on for the past 15 years or so, I’ve read Smithsonian — overall I think it’s a neat magazine.
But it’s definitely for old people. The ads (for cruises, specialty bow ties, and Jitterbug phones) tell you all you need to know about the magazine’s demographic — and some superficial research pegs a surveyed demo as well into the 60+ age bracket. So I wasn’t entirely surprised to read this curmudgeonly article in the October 2010 issue, on the “humorous back page” section…
My Big Hang-Up in a Connected World
One man’s rage against the communication revolution and the dying of civility
[…] Like me, my mother was not quite ready for the communication revolution. As a teacher of journalism, I tell myself that all this connectedness is the link that joins the Family of Man. But in my quieter moments (of which there are now not many), I see we’ve created a nation of zombies—heads down, thumbs on tiny keyboards, mindless millions staring blankly, shuffling toward some unseen horizon. To them, the rest of us are invisible. Not long ago, a colleague was startled to see a young woman approaching; she had been too absorbed in her texting to notice the words “Men’s Room” on the door. For one brief shining moment, she was at a loss for words.
These days, I, too, carry a cellphone clipped to my belt, hoping the pod people (er…iPod people) will mistake me for one of their own. But I rarely turn it on. Judging from all the urgency around me, I alone seem to have nothing to say, nothing that demands I communicate that instant. I await no call, text or e-mail of such import that it couldn’t be served as well with a stamp and a complete sentence, both of which seem destined for history’s dustbin…
The most remarkable finds in my “True Stuff from Old Books” series have been the articles and anecdotes that prove the good-old-days weren’t any different from the here and now, in terms of what sorts of things scare people, and excite people, and challenge people; what sorts of emotions are perhaps simply human, more than a reaction to something specific in the culture. Human beings are uncomfortable with change; no more or less now than ever before.
Now I think so, but is that true? I challenged myself to find an absolutely equivalent sentiment about the dehumanizing menace of all this durn-blasted newfangled technology from at least 100 years ago.
It took me about three minutes in Google Books.
From the journal Nature, November 1889 issue, comes this article titled “Nature’s Revenge on Genius.” (Emphases and paragraph breaks are mine.)
NATURE’S REVENGE ON GENIUS.
“God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.” — Eccles. 7:29.
“Then they provoked Him to anger with their inventions, and the plague broke in upon them.” — Psalms 106:29.
Nature has ever been most liberal and beneficent to the human race. In the Edenal days of man’s uprightness, the primitive Garden supplied his every want. Nothing was left to be desired. He was supremely content. Even now in the latter days Nature’s lap is more than full. The measure of her variety and abundance is beyond the limit of man’s ken.
But, with the increase of knowledge that followed “the fall,” there have come inordinate desires; and this insatiate longing is the fixed penalty of primitive disobedience. Unlike the thirst of Tantalus, it does not remain unsatisfied, but the misery and suffering are rendered more intense because of the human capability of accomplishment. In full consciousness of his strength and God-given faculties, man’s constant endeavor from the beginning has been to neutralize that penalty, and to restore by his own effort that blessed pristine condition when contentment left nothing more to be desired.
His mighty intellect enables him to work out successfully economic problems which he undertakes, and to satisfy his wants and supply his deficiencies by multifarious ingenious inventions. There seems to be no limit to his scope and capacity, but he never attains the desired ultimate! Each success only seems to remove the desideratum further off; for, with each desire fulfilled, new wants arise, like hydra heads, to stimulate his energy and test his genius.
Nay, more; new penalties and distresses persistently and inexorably follow each new invention, and that which man believes to be for his melioration inevitably bears a satellite of evil in its train. Fresh calamities and new diseases not only come to view, but they are discovered to be actually produced by the novel appliances which have been regarded as benefits and wonderful improvements. Household conveniences beget unexpected annoyances, rapid locomotion involves fatalities, and mechanical contrivances to reduce labor impoverish multitudes while they benefit the few; and not only economic contrivances, but aesthetic devices exert a reflex influence upon the health and comfort of those who employ them. The world of fashion becomes the vestibule of the cemetery.
Indeed, it may be stated as a postulate, on general principles, that the ratio of evil is a hundred to one of good accomplished by man’s inventions, either in respect to the intrinsic properties of the machines invented, or to the population upon which they directly act. So that, while man apparently is working out his own salvation and benefitting himself, each effort is actually involving him more inextricably in the meshes of the Divine penalty.
“God made man upright;” but since he has fallen, no other power can set him up again. “Of ourselves we can do nothing.”
But man’s progressive works are not only destroying himself, but they are hastening the destruction of the Earth, in whose ultimate fate mankind is commonly involved, according to the Scriptures. It may well be questioned whether, in view of the startling and unforeseen consequences of scientific success which have changed the aspect and economy of the entire globe within the past fifty years, we have not overstepped the moral bounds of science by perverting the knowledge which Man came into possession of surreptitiously when he ate of the “forbidden fruit.”
We have not only experimented with the visible forces of Nature, but, like Saul, have had dealings with the occult. When Benjamin Franklin first called down the lightning from the sky he was accused by the superstitious or reverential with “tempting the Almighty.” Now we handle the subtile element as if it were inert matter, and we impress it into our nurseries as a toy for the children! We tap the bowels of the earth and subject to our domestic use the vapors which formed primordial chaos; we jar the earth with giant explosives and start the mountains in motion; we breed earthquakes and marvel at the results; we experiment with the volcano and the geyser, the mysterious medicine spring and the poisoned valley, and toy with the weirdest phenomena of Nature as if they were familiar spirits. We have builded a Tower of Babel at Paris, and we have phonographed the breath of life so that the dead may speak years after they have departed from the earth, setting aside the decrees of the Almighty and provoking the laws of Nature. For years we have been attempting to make water burn, perverting the Divine economy to the economy of Man, and reversing the purposes of the Creator; and as soon as ever the effort is crowned with success, the destruction of the world is no longer a question of centuries, but of years.
At present our most dangerous pet is electricity—in the telegraph, the street lamp and the telephone. We have introduced electric power into our simplest domestic industries, and we have woven this most subtile of agents, once active only in the sublimest manifestations of Omnipotence, like a web about our dwellings, and filled our atmosphere with the filaments of death.
Already the conservative public has taken the alarm, and it has become our urgent duty, in the interest of personal safety, to clip the pinions of the winged messenger and draw its claws. Measures are in order to undo the mischief as rapidly as possible and to get back to as safe a condition as we were before we took this active and relentless agent into our intimate employ.
It is urged that electric lighting is not essential to the public comfort. It is not a necessity but a luxury. By abolishing it we reduce our danger appreciably. The telegraph is essential to rapid intercommunication in this age of unexampled business activity, and will be retained, but its operation must be subjected to proper safeguards, of which the subway is perhaps the most effective.
The telephone is the most dangerous of all because it enters into every dwelling. Its interminable network of wires is a perpetual menace to life and property. In its best performance it is only a convenience. It was never a necessity. In a multitude of cities its service is unsatisfactory and is being dispensed with. It may not be expedient that it should be wholly abolished, but its operation may be so curtailed and systematized as to render it comparatively innocuous.
Instead of permitting its introduction into houses indiscriminately, telephone stations might be established, when desired, to embrace districts of six blocks square, thirty-six blocks inclusive, through which messages may be transmitted. It is seldom that there are cases of such urgency to customers as to make the extremest distance within the district a hardship to travel. In a city of the size of New York the number of stations would be restricted to no more than four hundred, and the difference between the comparatively small number of wires required for the transaction of business on that basis and the incalculable number now in use, would not only be immense, but the danger would be reduced in proportion.
The dividends of the electrical companies would be naturally diminished thereby, but the grievance would not affect the general public, and the “plague” would be averted. We are to consider, in this marvelous period of scientific progress and intellectual advancement, not so much what we do and the quality of our achievements, as the reflex influence of what is done and how it reacts on ourselves.
I’m absolutely certain that I could go back even further and find an identical screed against the evils of the printing press as well, but I don’t think I’d be able to look it up on Google Books.