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I'm sure anyone who is reading this has read at least an article, blog, or book condemning the consumption of television and video games as harmful to children, the behavior of teenagers, intelligence of adults, and bringing down civilization as we know it. I am curious to know, is this a new cultural trend or have new media always met similar resistance?

  • Not all video games or tv or movies are "condemned"; rather, people attack themes/subjects they dislike in them (violence, sex, etc). In this sense it did happen to prior mediums of expressions, such as books or poems or paintings, which have been variously banned or destroyed or covered up for "obscenity" and various other reasons. – Semaphore Nov 15 '14 at 6:13
  • I'm not sure this question is historically answerable but it seems to hide a historically answerable question. It may be aided by specifying specific new media forms. I'd recommend newspapers, wood block prints, broadsheets and film. – Samuel Russell Nov 15 '14 at 7:11
  • How many similar instances of "new media" have there been in history? The telephone is the only one I can think of in general use. Telegraph was limited use, printing merely made books cheaper & more widely available. It would also be good to consider whether the condemnation isn't a matter of observing objective effects, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to newness. – jamesqf Jul 28 '15 at 18:56
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For the most part, the telephone was a welcome invention that, aside from its practical applications for business, helped to alleviate the loneliness of rural existence. It was adopted fairly quickly, reaching 40% of American households before the Depression hit, slowing and even reversing its use (22). Continued adoption would wait until the 1940s. Despite the telephone's general acceptance, there were and always will be some who fear that society is balanced on a knife's edge, and that all it takes is one new invention to disrupt traditional means of social control:

One concern in the earliest days was that the telephone allowed people to conceal from community scrutiny inappropriate activities, such as illicit romances or liquor purchases. (26)

Similar fears were raised about bicycles and automobiles -- which were feared because in some sense they too were "forms of communication," as OP put it. In particular, automobiles might facilitate intercourse between the sexes, if you follow (27). As a preacher in the Lynd's Middletown Study put it, an automobile is a "house of prostitution on wheels."

Lovers of domestic simplicity feared that the telephone destroyed the sanctity of the home:

One common complaint in the 19th century was that the telephone permitted intrusion into the domestic circle by solicitors, purveyors of inferior music, eavesdropping operators, and even wire-transmitted germs . . . Messages come unbidden; background sounds reveal intimacies in the home to the caller. (26)

And of course, how could we talk about social control and domesticity without bringing in gender? In Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, Volume 84, and republished elsewhere, Minna Thomas Antrim published an essay entitled "The Outrages of the Telephone."

That the telephone has blessed man, saved many lives, and helped pile up fortunes is true; but has it not cursed some women, ruined more lives, and hastened domestic misfortune? It has. Has it not become the favorite pastime of the women with nothing to do? It has. Does it not accelerate gossip? Aid the flirt and the wayward, constantly? It does. Self Indulgent women waste their husbands' money by ordering food “over the too handy telephone, rather than bother to dress for the street,” thereby losing both their wholesome morning exercise and their chance thriftily to secure the best there is for the price at market or at stores from which the family larder is supplied. The time wasted by women in foolish ‘phoning can never be offset by time gained by forehanded men in business, for what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world if his "world" is lost through folly?

If making women into lazy, time-wasting spendthrifts who don't exercise weren't enough, the telephone would also make them impertinent shrews:

Impulsive women say things to men and to each other over the telephone that they would never say face to face.

But how representative is this of American opinion in general? Antrim gives away the game by revealing that she's the odd woman out. She hates the telephone so much because everyone expects her to use it:

Seemingly [answering the telephone] must be done and very graciously, with "thank you" added, or--you become a target for ire. Sometimes you pay the price of discomfort for your entire family. If you protest verbally, forthwith you are a "crank," disagreeable, unfeeling, and what not. Again if you fail to "call up" in turn, you are "queer." If you do, it is a signal for renewed mortgages upon your time, patience, and quiet.

This is a history site, so I'll stop myself before drawing any general theories of technology and society from early reactions to the telephone. I'll just say that every concern raised with the telephone seems correct in the details (yes, telephones have been used to buy drugs and to arrange affairs; yes, telemarketers are frustrating; yes, I order in food too much) . . . but that the critics missed the larger picture by underestimating the resiliency of institutions like the family, community, etc. to adjust to new technologies.


Source: Claude S. Fischer's "America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940" is my source for most of the above. All page numbers refer to that book.

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New media has often been met with criticism - Semaphore rightfully pointed out that often not the medium but the topic (sex, violence, drugs, blasphemy, ...) is condemned. Still there are example where this wasn't the case.

Probably the most clear cut example is from Socrates

There is an old Egyptian tale of Theuth, the inventor of writing, showing his invention to the god Thamus, who told him that he would only spoil men’s memories and take away their understandings. From this tale, of which young Athens will probably make fun, may be gathered the lesson that writing is inferior to speech. For it is like a picture, which can give no answer to a question, and has only a deceitful likeness of a living creature. It has no power of adaptation, but uses the same words for all. It is not a legitimate son of knowledge, but a bastard, and when an attack is made upon this bastard neither parent nor any one else is there to defend it. (Phaedrus)

A genre (but not topic)-specific condemnation comes from Kant

Am schädlichsten ist das Romanlesen der Kinder, da sie nämlich weiter keinen Gebrauch davon machen, als daß sie ihnen in dem Augenblicke, indem sie sie lesen, zur Unterhaltung dienen. Das Romanlesen schwächt das Gedächtnis.
(Immanuel Kant, Über Pädagogik, Von der physischen Erziehung, A 81)

The most harmful is the reading of novels by children, because they do not utilize it, but in the moment in which they read to derive pleasure. Reading of novels weakens memory

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