It is funny to see how some people react to technology changes, almost always assuming that “new” is somehow bad, because it’s different. Looking back through historical examples, they often look pretty funny. Last year, we wrote about an old moral panic in the NY Times from 1878 about two Thomas Edison inventions, the phonograph and the aerophone (basically a broadcasting system for the phonograph). It’s somewhat hilarious to read these days:
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.
Thanks to Mr. Edison’s perverted ingenuity, this has not only become a literal truth, but every shelf, closet, or floor may now have its concealed phonographic ears. No young man will venture to carry on a private conversation with a young lady, lest he should be filling a secret phonograph with evidence that, in a breach of promise suit, would secure an immediate verdict against him, and our very small-boys will fear to express themselves with childish freedom, lest the phonograph should report them as having used the name of “gosh,” or as having to “bust the snoot” of the long-suffering governess.
Beware! And, just a few days ago, someone on Twitter (I fear I can’t find the tweet now) pointed me to this story from last year in the Atlantic, highlighting a similar moral panic in the NY Times, twenty years earlier, about this horrible device known as the telegraph. You see, it spreads information so quickly, we’ll barely have time to think:
“Superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth, must be all telegraphic intelligence. Does it not render the popular mind too fast for the truth? Ten days bring us the mails from Europe. What need is there for the scraps of news in ten minutes? How trivial and paltry is the telegraphic column?”
And, of course, things are little different today when it comes to new technologies. In fact, you could take the quotes above from the 19th Century NY Times and with very few changes, likely have them apply to modern internet services and social media — and they would be little different from some of the stories that you do see in the press today.
And, just as was true of those two stories above, it turns out that the fearmongering is way off base, and the ability of people to adapt and change grows. Take the fears over Facebook, for example. Just five years ago, in 2010, the NY Times Magazine warned us all about the perils of the internet remembering everything we’ve ever done, and how you’ll never be able to rid yourself of such a “permanent record.” It discusses previous moral panics about the privacy impacts of certain technologies, but then pulls out the “but this time, it’s different” card.
Technological advances, of course, have often presented new threats to privacy. In 1890, in perhaps the most famous article on privacy ever written, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis complained that because of new technology — like the Kodak camera and the tabloid press — “gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious but has become a trade.” But the mild society gossip of the Gilded Age pales before the volume of revelations contained in the photos, video and chatter on social-media sites and elsewhere across the Internet. Facebook, which surpassed MySpace in 2008 as the largest social-networking site, now has nearly 500 million members, or 22 percent of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site. Facebook users share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month (including news stories, blog posts and photos), and the average user creates 70 pieces of content a month. There are more than 100 million registered Twitter users, and the Library of Congress recently announced that it will be acquiring — and permanently storing — the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006.
The author, Jeffrey Rosen, declares this a “collective identity crisis”:
As social-networking sites expanded, it was no longer quite so easy to have segmented identities: now that so many people use a single platform to post constant status updates and photos about their private and public activities, the idea of a home self, a work self, a family self and a high-school-friends self has become increasingly untenable. In fact, the attempt to maintain different selves often arouses suspicion. Moreover, far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.
Concern about these developments has intensified this year, as Facebook took steps to make the digital profiles of its users generally more public than private. Last December, the company announced that parts of user profiles that had previously been private — including every user’s friends, relationship status and family relations — would become public and accessible to other users. Then in April, Facebook introduced an interactive system called Open Graph that can share your profile information and friends with the Facebook partner sites you visit.
There are plenty more stories like this. Stories about how difficult it will be for the “Facebook generation” to run for office, given that all their childish antics will be online. Or stories about how people are living too much through their Facebook feeds, rather than just experiencing life.
And yet… people have a way of adapting. Venture capitalist Adam Besvinick, recently noticed that, in talking to recent college grads, they actually were having the opposite experience of what everyone was fretting about just a few years ago. And that’s because they all started using Snapchat rather than Facebook for such things:
Interesting recurring sentiment from recent grads: We lived most of our college lives on Snapchat—now we don't have any "tangible" memories.
— Adam Besvinick (@Besvinick) August 25, 2015
He later notes that some of those grads are now regretting that they don’t have much tangible to hold onto about those memories. And, yes, as I’m sure someone is rushing to point out in the comments, Snapchat’s “disappearing” images and videos don’t really disappear, and they can (and often are) saved. But many are not. And they go away. And, yes, that’s kind of like things were in the past, when people just experienced things, rather than share them all.
But it’s important to note that everything adapts. Kids adapt. New services adapt. Societal norms and culture adapt. And things don’t turn into some dystopian nightmare that some worry about.
So many people look at these new services and react with outrage because they’re different, and because they’re different and will create different kinds of experiences, they must be bad. But history has shown that people are pretty damn resilient, and are pretty good at figuring out how to do things in a way that best suits them. And some will fail. And some will make mistakes. But it’s hardly a crisis deserving of a moral panic. These things seem to take care of themselves pretty well — and then people start worrying about the opposite (e.g. not enough permanence) as compared to the original moral panic (e.g. too much permanence).