Pessimists Archive Podcaster Jason Feifer Debunks Past Panics About Elevators, Novels, and Bicycles 

Why do new things reliably freak us out?


Are you old enough to remember Louise Brown? In 1978, she became the first person born through in vitro fertilization (IVF). She was called a "test-tube baby," and the technology that allowed her to exist scared the bejeezus out of everyone. Now, IVF is a routine method of reproduction.

Or maybe you recall when the Walkman was introduced in 1979 as the first truly portable, immersive, individualized sound system. Its success led to a spate of panicked stories about how it would destroy communal music. Some towns even passed laws banning people from using the device while walking.

If you're interested in past panics about new developments, you'll be interested in the podcast Pessimists Archive, which is dedicated to exploring "why we resist new things." Host Jason Feifer delves into historical moments of panic over everything from novels to elevators to chain stores to that once unforgivably dirty dance, the waltz. He is also the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, host of a business-oriented podcast called Problem Solvers, and a novelist.

In July, Feifer spoke with Reason's Nick Gillespie about why new things reliably freak us out.

Q: You write about the elevator and the work its creators did to encourage people to use it. Can we only adapt to new technology when there's an intentional effort to assuage our fears?

A: I think oftentimes the developers of technology forget to do that. They are so bought in on the value of the thing they have produced that they forget other people are not going to see it and immediately say, "I love this a lot more than the thing I'm already comfortable with."

With new technology, there's a moment when the creators will step back and realize there's a psychological element missing. With elevators, they decided to install a female voice that would say, "Going up, going down."

Q: The elevator also had a transformative effect on class. It took a bunch of different people with different backgrounds and stuck them in a tiny box.

A: There was a fundamental question of: Is the elevator transportation or is it a room? We're talking about the 1930s and 1940s, and the entire nation debated that question for literal decades. If a man walks into an elevator and there's a woman inside it, does he take his hat off? If it's a room, he does, but if it's transportation—like a train—that would be impractical.

How is the elevator supposed to be decorated and arranged? Early elevators had couches and chandeliers. You were supposed to sit down! The idea of standing in a moving box was so incredibly foreign that they wanted people to feel comfortable.

Q: The car raised similar questions. 

A: Exactly. And both of those technologies—cars and elevators—completely rearranged the way we live. For instance, before the elevator, poor people lived at the top of buildings, and rich people lived at the bottom. Which makes sense, because only poor people would be expected to hoof up stairs all the way to the top. If you're rich, you spend the money for an apartment that's easy to get to. The penthouse apartment simply did not exist. But as soon as there was an elevator, everything reorganized.

Q: One of the reasons people today pay more to live higher up is the views. Did poor people who lived at the top of buildings not get much out of those views? 

A: Well, before the elevator, buildings weren't very tall. Six floors or so. And they were also built with social strata in mind. First-floor dwellings were spacious and nice, while the upper floors were cramped and terrible.

Q: Let's talk about the novel. What were people worried about when that form of literature became dominant in the late 1800s?

A: They worried about so many things. One of them was bad influence. In the late 1800s, people worried that children would read a crime novel and then want to become a criminal.

Q: Can you talk about the fear of women and novels? 

A: The gendered concern comes up in a lot of new technologies. When the novel was ascendant, people believed men and women's bodies functioned differently and that women could be easily exhausted in a way that men could not be. Even doctors at the time saw novels as draining a woman's finite energy. Everyone believed that reading novels could drive women insane and make them infertile.

Q: Was there also a sense that women might want to behave differently if they read novels? 

A: Yes, though I always wonder if people genuinely believed there were potential health problems or if they really thought that the novel was a way for women to access more of the world and found that threatening. Because they also believed that a bicycle's spinning wheels could make women insane, and it also promised to give women more freedom.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. You can listen to the full conversation, and don't forget to subscribe to the Reason Podcast.

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  1. “Why do new things reliably freak us out?”

    This applies to much more than technology !
    It is almost a natural response to survival to question how to handle what people consider as new situations – like how to respond to associating with blacks when one has been brought up associating with only whites.

    1. Or like how to respond to associating with whites when one has been brought up associating with only blacks.

      1. The current response to that is to demand that whites do 100% of the accommodating.

        1. Or die, or go fuck themselves, or go to tolerance camp, or whatever the progressive demand du jour is.

  2. I know plenty of folks who are scared witless about driverless cars and potential accidents. Like there isn’t already a million fender benders per year. Our grandkids will laugh about how we actually used to personally steer vehicles from place to place.

    1. How about GMO’s and large scale farming?? Then again some thigs that aren’t new like plastics, cars, cooking meat, and round up are considered evil also.

    2. And some of them are regular commenters here. They can’t see themselves abdicating control of the car, as if they never make mistakes.

      1. So freedom to choose whether or not to personally go driverless is bad?

        1. Well, once the technology is well enough established that robots are essentially as good at driving as humans, there are, in theory, enormous gains in efficiency and safety if you forbid our fleshy, fallible selves from mucking it up.

          I don’t advocate this outcome, personally, since I’m skeptical of requiring interventions even when it’s a tiny accommodation for a pretty clear case of great public good (like vaccination). But I definitely think there’s some (reasonable) folks around the commentariat who’d be happy to argue the affirmative on that one.

      2. Get. Off. My. Lawn.

        And stop using my portion of the clouds!

      3. I don’t think that it’s about human drivers not making mistakes. People like to be in control. That’s why people are more afraid of flying than driving, even though you are more likely to die driving.

    3. Safety isn’t the only issue with driverless cars. But, your comment is a good example of how people with real concerns about new technologies are often dismissed as ignorant rubes who fear change and progress by the boosters of new inventions.

    4. Automatic landing systems for airplanes were a new thing, recently tested for airliners, when they figured into the plot of “One of Our Aircraft Is Empty”, the episode of British detective show Department S that Lost was largely based on.

  3. Every time some parent that I know brings up how damaging it will be for children to read from kindles, how important it is for kids to learn cursive etc., I think about how parents over the millennia thought the same- the kids can’t use letters instead of pictures for writing or it will rot their brain, we can’t switch from clay tablets to scrolls or else the kids arm muscles will atrophy, if kids start reading books instead of scrolls the page turning will ruin their eyes…

    Things change and other changes happen as a consequence. There’s no difference between writing down information in pictures, hash marks or letters except they use slightly different skills and some are more efficient that others.

    1. I don’t obsess over it, but all my kids have learned cursive and I think it’s really good for hand-eye coordination, and helping to imprint words and phonemes in the brain. I can tell the difference in language ability between the ones who actually put a lot of work into cursive and the ones who kind of slacked on it (one took up calligraphy as a hobby, so she’s the extreme at one end), but I don’t know whether it’s causation or just correlation.

      1. I really like cursive too but how is that different from a quickly written pretty printed writing that strings together? It’s not at all. Someone somewhere decided that writing should be fancy and that all ids should learn it. It’s arbitrary. Most of the curriculum in schools is arbitrary. Someone somewhere decided that out of all the things there are to learn in the world there were a few things that were more important than others.

        1. “I really like cursive too but how is that different from a quickly written pretty printed writing that strings together? ”

          It can be very different. The poet and visionary William Blake used to compose poetry in cursive by engraving it, mirror-wise, on a copper plate. In Blake’s time a person’s handwriting could be their most job-marketable feature. Blake’s arguably most famous poem begins Tyger tyger burning bright, written around the time that public zoos began to appear in London.

        2. Cursive is much faster than printing.

          1. Yes, because you aren’t lifting the pen/pencil from the paper as often.

            I can’t find a link on it right now, but I saw something on-line a while back from a teacher working on a form of continuous printing that would achieve the same thing.

      2. Try leaning cursive when you have poor penmanship. The word “torment” is way too mild for what I experienced in school.

    2. ‘Things change’ and so should The Constitution!


  4. How about paranoia and fear about new drugs and “medical devices”? The FDA makes “medical devices” companies spend $30 million or more, easily, and many-many years, proving “medical devices” to be “safe and effective”, before manufacturers can sell them. Drugs? Prepare to spend (?) $billions I think! … Before drug companies can sell the drugs.

    Yet ANY and EVERY new fad or fashion, totally unproven, totally untested, can be deployed at schools “for the children”, and tested and proven effectiveness? No one cares! (At least, no one in Government Almighty cares). As long as the “new thang” SOUNDS GOOD, and GROWS Government Almighty, that is ALL that matters!

    1. Speaking of “medical devices”…

      Just the other day, I tried to market, for FREE, a new “app” I wrote… Just snap a picture on your I-Phone and have the app analyze the picture you just took… And it SOLVES that age-old “bane” of husbands and boyfriends everywhere! “Does this dress make me look fat”? … “Well honey, I dunno, let’s see what my I-phone and the ‘Does this dress make me look fat’ app has to say” SNAP and go!!!… Your opinion is taken OUT, you are OFF of the hot seat!

      As publisher of this “app”, I was charged with “diagnosing obesity, a medical condition, w/o a Doctor’s License”. I am writing this post to you, Beloved Reasonoids, from jail… I apologize for my crimes…

      1. Everyone knows the only correct answer to that question is “honey, you look beautiful”

        Following which she rolls her eyes then takes it off and puts on the black dress which she wanted to wear in the first place.

      2. Mikey Hihn ladies and gentlemen!

        What a knee slapper!

        1. Jerk the Roper, ladies and germs!!! Or is Anna’s real name Joker the Ripper, Jack the Ripper, Tulpa, Mary Stack, Mary’s Period, “.”, or Satan? I have lost track…

          Tell us a joke, Jerk the Rip-Tard! PLEASE?!?!

      3. Does this dress make me look fat?

        No, your fat ass makes you look fat.

        Wakes up in hospital.

  5. Its success led to a spate of panicked stories about how it would destroy communal music.

    It was step one in destroying communal a-lot-more-than-just-music. I was in a restaurant lobby waiting with about eight friends for a table one day and I looked around and all but two of us had their noses buried in their phones (one was a girl who, shockingly, didn’t own a smart phone).

    Because I’m that guy, I scolded them. Seriously? You’re out to socialize with friends and you’re all glued to your phones?

    All this personal technology does atomize social and community relationships. No doubt about it.

    1. Yes, personal media devices most certainly HAVE greatly diminished sharing the experience of music and other entertainments.

  6. New shit ruins everything. Fuck I remember back when all I had was a newspaper. Sit down in the morning, grab some coffee, and read the whole thing. Done: that’s all the new info I need to know today.

    Now what I have the internet. Like I can read all of that in a day? Fuck it’s mostly porn. That doesn’t make sense. Ducking ruined everything.

  7. “Some towns even passed laws banning people from using the device (Walkman) while walking.”
    More likely because people were oblivious to their surroundings. In our town a woman was hit and killed by a train she didn’t hear approaching.

    1. A good example of throwing out the baby with the bath water, which happens a lot with new things. OMG, there are some costs! As if there are no benefits.

      1. It’s a case of human heuristics – it’s easy to see somebody dying because they were walkmaning instead of paying attention, but it’s difficult to see the diffuse benefits that more portable music created. This is why markets are smarter than people, despite market forces literally just being the aggregation of people making choices; because people understand their own preferences quite well, but fail to understand everyone’s preferences with sufficient granularity.

    2. They don’t call them the “Darwin Awards” for nothing …

    3. I-phones w/ headphones are much worse. At least with a Walkman you didn’t have your face buried in a screen too. The idiot kids at the college where I work walk through parking lots (where other idiot kids are driving) like this all the time.

  8. A good work done by the author as many of us like to hear about the history and learn things from it at times and it is really interesting to hear it sometimes to get relaxed and stress free of our studies and in addition people also love to use the best assignment help now near me UK to get good grades in their work and get time to learn new things.

  9. I’m not sure we reliably panic when faced with new things. Tobacco was enjoyed for 100s of years before people started to panic over it. Radium and chlorofluorocarbons took decades before the panic set in. Elevators and walkmen never caused a panic.

  10. I don’t think “debunks” is the word your headline writer wanted. Whoopee debunking something long known to have been bunk, huh? Maybe “deconstructs” or “tells of” or “discusses”.

  11. “Because they also believed that a bicycle’s spinning wheels could make women insane,”


    1. By assuming it might have something to do with repetitive motion, they were actually giving women the benefit of the doubt. Scientists are still working to figure out the cause, and I still haven’t seen anything more persuasive than the spinning wheel theory.

      On the one hand, we’re not supposed to think it has a some sort of consistent correlation to anything, but, on the other hand, we’re not supposed to think it’s completely random either. I think we’re supposed to blame gun violence, fat shaming, and the patriarchy.

      1. Nailed it!!!

  12. “Why do new things reliably freak us out?”

    They don’t “freak us out”. Some tiny percentage of people highlight the negatives because their core mission is denigrating the masses.

    Just like this article in fact.

    1. This.

      My favorite Reason articles are the ones that condescend to us plebs about issues where all the hysteria and irrationality is coming from journalists.

  13. Haha yeah, conscripting Christian bakers to make cakes for faggots and letting men who dress like women compete in segregated women’s sports leagues is exactly like the commercialization of toothpaste! Silly old fogies!

    1. Stop misgendering Dr. Rachel McKinnon, you hateful science-denying bigot.


    2. Who said anything about cake? And why do you keep getting banned?

  14. Strangely apropos-
    I click on a link: “LATEST” and am presented, in the last week of October, with the transcript of a podcast recorded in July about the Fear Of New Things.
    Did Reason feel a need to quarantine the interview for nearly half a year?

  15. Oh elevators.

    Always face forward.

    Do not engage in small talk

    Hold open the door.

    Any other rules?

    If the cable snaps jump up. Heh.

    1. Do. Not. Fart.

    2. Give a small smile to hot women.

    3. As more people enter the elevator, the earlier occupants should move to positions where they’re all equidistant from each other–and the new occupants.

    4. It’s okay to hit the “Close Door” button when you hear someone coming down the hall trying to catch the elevator–so long as the person trying to catch the elevator can’t see who you are or that you pushed the “Close Door” button.

      1. That’s how I do it. And I quietly scream to myself, ‘come on, come on, COME ON!’

        The thing about the last minute person catching the elevator is there’s sure to be someone else or two or three who jump in. All going to floors LOWER than yours.

    5. If someone continues a phone conversation when they get on the elevator, it’s an invitation to both comment on the conversation and to participate in the conversation.

      “Wow, your wife is a real pain in the ass!”

      “Ask her what’s for dinner, and tell her it better be good”.

  16. I remember 78 and I don’t remember anyone panicking over test tube babies.

    Killer bees? Yes. Ice age? Yes. Nuclear war? Yes. Lawn Darts? Yes. Kerbangers? Yes. Boba Fett that shoes spring loaded missiles from his back? Yes. Skylab falling? Yes.

    But test tube babies? No.

  17. “How is the elevator supposed to be decorated and arranged?”

    Who gives a shit? It’s the most awkward space to enter. As long as no one talks to me or doesn’t stink, it makes it somewhat palpable.

    Where possible I take the stairs.

    Just can’t stand being next to someone in a tight space like that. Knowing my luck, I’ll be stuck next to some selfish loon who coughs without covering their mouths or smells like a vat of lobotomized progressive brains.

    1. “…lobotomized progressive brains.”

      You repeat yourself, sir.

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