For many of us reading this right now, technology generally has a positive implication. The mere mention of the word “technology” conjures images of invention. These then lead to improvement in the many ways we live our lives.
But throughout the history of mankind, not everyone saw technology and development as synonymous with positive progress. Modern civilization saw one of the clearest examples at the peak of the Age of Industrialization in the mid-19th century. Then, technology and machination brought such sweeping changes to society. They completely revolutionized economies, automation led to mass production and never-before-seen efficiency. However, this happened at a huge cost to the environment and caused great socio-economic divides that continue to deepen today.
Perhaps it is a mix of our complicated history with technology and the natural fear of the unknown. And this sometimes bring out fear in people when dealing with new ideas. In every field, pioneers and visionaries face the same struggle for validation, fighting to justify their ideas. The greater the idea, the greater the resistance, but the greater the positive impact when the idea takes hold.
Today, we bring to you 3 examples of technologies that were once viewed with skepticism and fear, but are now recognized as positive forces for good.
1. The Telephone
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell offered to sell the patent to the telephone to Western Union. Then the biggest telegraph operator in the world, Western Union’s president, William Orton, famously declined.
The New York Times even labeled the telephone a “dangerous device of the enemies of the Republic”. Later, people feared that there were others listening in or that telephones could emit sounds that would drive you crazy or cause deafness (Parker, 1995). Even today, academics argue that cellphones have a negative effect on society, and even health concerns.
But their positive impact is unmistakable. Telephone technology has brought the world closer together like never before, at a fraction of the cost of any other mode of communication. In large parts of the world, internet and other digital infrastructure like banking don’t exist. Here, the humble telephone continues to keep people in touch with the outside world.
Bell later sold his patent for $2 million. And phones today outnumber humans in the world.
2. The Internet and Digital Technology
No one really saw the internet as a threat in the beginning. Not until mainstream adoption happened with email and the WWW in the mid-1990s. Mass media used to denounce early online communities as little more than the preferred tools of criminals and other unsavory types. Former Microsoft chief Steve Balmer even called related open source tech “a cancer” on society.
Of course, there was a certain element of truth to those claims. But only because criminals are often one of the earliest adopters of any new tech. The internet was no different.
Barry Chudakov, founder of Sertain Research and Streamfuzion summarizes: “The good news is that concept-generation, creativity, programming, publishing or musical performance is no longer in the hands of indifferent gatekeepers… Anyone with a tool can now be an expert and build an app or a reputation.”
And if we ever need proof of that? We need only look to the open source and startup space to see this take action every day.
As crazy as it might seem to us today, schools didn’t always get the best opinions. In the 19th century, governments in the developed world began to see the importance of literacy. They planned to spread it through formal education. But there were very loud protests against the idea of sending children to school. Notable institutions lambasted public education as unnatural and a health risk.
Knowledge and education, as people had known it then, had been the privilege of the elite. But the printing press kept pushing out books and newspapers, threatening the status quo. As late as 1883, medical journal The Sanitarian claimed: “[schools] exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” The medical community even pinpointed excessive study as a leading cause of madness.
A century later, schooling is now mandatory in most of the civilized world and is an important Human Development Index indicator for the UN.
The timber industry, beyond demonization
At TreeCoin, we promote the idea of afforestation. The redevelopment of fallow commercial land, to be planted with eucalyptus trees that can mature quickly enough for harvesting high-quality wood to feed the world’s growing appetite for timber. The TreeCoin idea can be challenging for several reasons. For one, it doesn’t seek to stop the timber industry, it simply seeks to bring ethical changes in the way wood is sourced.
And we’ve spent a lot of effort in improving our idea. On the biological side, we’ve gone through great lengths to research and develop a eucalyptus hybrid that is not only non-invasive for its surrounding ecosystem, but also one that does not contain the harmful combustible oil sometimes blamed for forest fires.
On the socio-economic side, we’ve also partnered with indigenous communities and expertise, leveraging local knowledge and a strong communal desire to protect and preserve their homes. Those working with TreeCoin know they are also improving their own livelihoods and working for a better future for their lands and their local economies.
Given all the lessons learned from our past, the mistrust that can face a lot of new technology is understandable. But with patience, and a commitment to ethical progress, we can improve every invention to ensure that it brings more good than harm.