The Inevitability Of Techno Moral Panics: But Think Of The Children

from the women-and-children-first dept

For years, we’ve been fascinated with the general phenomenon of technology moral panics, and how we see them all the time around new forms of technology. Video games destroying children’s brains. The internet leading kids into a life of porn. These things go back many, many years. In the 15th century there was a technopanic about the printing press (“He who ceases from zeal for writing because of printing is no true lover of the Scriptures.”) In the 19th century, people were told that traveling on trains above 20mph would asphyxiate passengers. A hundred years ago, movies and telephones were declared evil (movies: “This new form of entertainment has gone far to blast maidenhood” and telephones: “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy? Does [it] break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”).

DannyB now points us to an interesting Wall Street Journal article that delves into the subject of technopanics, and how they almost always seem to target “women and children” first. It’s the classic “for the children!” argument that we see all the time. In fact, the article highlights another techno moral panic we hadn’t heard of before: around electricity:

If you electrify homes you will make women and children and 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.

The article focuses on the research of Genevieve Bell, who has a theory on these kinds of technopanics, saying that they need to have these three conditions to really bring out the fear mongering:

  • It has to change your relationship to time.
  • It has to change your relationship to space.
  • It has to change your relationship to other people.

I’m not sure this always applies (think of the panics around video games, comic books… and chess — yes, chess: “chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements, while it affords no benefit whatever to the body”), but it does seem to apply in many cases.

Of course, for those of us who tend to be optimistic about new technology, and skeptical about the same old moral panics that almost never seem to have any evidence to back them up, there’s not much to be done, other than to point out these historical similarities. Unfortunately, that rarely works for the new generation who always have something in their back pocket about why “this is different!” even though it almost never is.

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Comments on “The Inevitability Of Techno Moral Panics: But Think Of The Children”

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out_of_the_blue says:

What remains same is Pollyannas saying "Don't worry!"

Then, logically by your assertions, “teh internets” has changed nothing. — Nor does the increase of copyright enforcement! — And there’s no increase of police state! — Yes, Mike, everything is just exactly the same as always. Go back to your video games, kids.

Ffop says:

Re: What remains same is Pollyannas saying

You are right, however, the change is less about technology and more about the role of government. The capacity to enforce regulation effectively is much higher now than it was when most of the previous moral panics took place. Public support is also higher or at least more relevant in societies that are more affluent and healthy than those previous societies were, so they can devote the time and energy to moral panics. With some irony, technology had a great role in creating this society that allows for constant moral panics.

Donny (profile) says:


Wow, Genevieve Bell’s conditions are odd. Not because they’re wrong, but because they’re way too…right. Open university fits those three conditions. Air travel fits them. Netflix. Fridges. Polaroids. Fake tan. Restaurants. Home movies. Yoga classes.

(In fact, swap out “other people” for “causality” and you have Kant’s three pre-conditions for experience. As in, EVERYTHING you perceive/interact with is understood in terms of temporality, spatiality, causality.)

Morgenstern says:


The issue this post ignores is that technology is not a neutral entity. No technology introduced is ever used as it was intended, and the replacement of a technology with something better does not condemn that piece of technology to disappear completely.

While there are plenty of wild speculations and comments that accompany any new technology, as the posting indicates, it is wrong to assume that nothing changes with the introduction of a new piece of technology.

Alien Bard says:

Re: Technopanics

Very true. Dynamite is a good example of a new technology that changed the world in ways unimagined by the inventor – though I expect those with more cynical natures would not have been so surprised.

As an old friend of mine used to say, “No object has ever been invented that I cannot turn into a weapon.” The more I see, the more I believe him, and I think that also extends to ideas.

Alien Bard says:

“If you electrify homes you will make women and children and 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.”

Does that mean lanterns, candles, and other forms of fire emit light not visible to predators? I bet the anti-electricity lobbyists belonged to the candle makers guild.

Nicedoggy says:

The ironic part of technopanics is that the measures they use to try and stop eventually get used to punish everything even the children.


The boys committed their crime at age 14. And just what was it?

Horseplay. Stupid, disgusting horseplay. According to, the kids pulled down their pants and sat on two 12-year-olds? faces for the simple reason that they ?thought it was funny? and were trying to get their ?friends to laugh.?


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