From railways to artificial intelligence: a history of demonised inventions

New technologies evoke scepticism, worry, and fear. But why? A look at the history of technology provides insight.

Published : May 20, 2023 17:51 IST - 6 MINS READ

An 1890 oil painting by H.Baluschek titled “Railroad in Urban Landscape”.

An 1890 oil painting by H.Baluschek titled “Railroad in Urban Landscape”. | Photo Credit: akg-images/picture alliance

Technological advancements are polarising. It is not a new phenomenon for innovations to be sneered at, criticised, or even demonised. “We find scepticism about technology even in the earliest written records that we have about technology theory,” technology philosopher and historian Christian Vater told DW.

He said there were various reasons for this scepticism, including the complexity of technological inventions and the associated lack of knowledge or understanding, for example, the fear of losing control or even emotionality.

But scepticism toward new technologies is not proof of a general fear of technology, according to Helmuth Trischler, head of research at Deutsches Museum in Munich. “Behind this assumption is a limited perception—it’s good that people examine things rationally,” he said.

The difference between a rational assessment of potential consequences of technology and an irrational, uncontrolled defensiveness toward technology is also emphasised by Vater, who distinguishes between concern and panic. “I consider ‘concern’ to be very legitimate and extraordinarily necessary, especially if we want to actively, jointly shape a future shaped by technology in an informed democracy,” he said. “’Panic’, however, typically leads to uncontrolled running away.”

The fact that technological inventions can inspire both concern and panic in equal measure can be seen in the example of the railroad.

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Diabolical conveyance: The railroad

Some 200 years after its invention, the railroad is a completely ordinary form of transportation for people and goods around the world and a part of the fabric of modern society. But in its early days, some people viewed the railroad as the work of the devil.

The world’s first public railroad was inaugurated in England in 1825. After that, the steam locomotive made its way across Europe—and with it, the fear of trains and of what was known in Germany as “Eisenbahnkrankheit” or “railway sickness.” This was thought to be caused by the train’s speed, which was up to 30 kilometres per hour (18.6 miles per hour)—considered fast back then—and the bone-rattling vibrations felt while sitting in the carriages.

Even as the railway network flourished across Victorian England, the criticism of this mode of transportation remained strong, as evidenced by satirical caricatures and illustrated police reports.

Trischler said these reactions are “completely understandable” given the context of the time. Technological advancements require reorientation, which can spark fears to which people react with extreme apprehension. “The new does, after all, arouse emotions. Technology is basically always associated with emotions,” he explained.

  • Throughout the course of history, new innovations, technologies, etc. have been met with concern and scepticism on account of complexities and a lack of understanding.
  • In 1975 in Germany, protestors began demonstrating at a construction site of a planned nuclear plant and expressed concerns over climate change, groundwater drawdown and possible security problems in relation to nuclear plants.
  • While nuclear energy is seen as a positive alternative to fossil fuels in some parts of the world, in other countries it evokes existential angst.

Fear of the split atom

But not every technological invention inevitably evokes negative emotions. For instance, when nuclear energy was introduced to mankind, the attitude was different. The first German research reactor was built in Munich in 1957, and four years later, nuclear energy was fed into the country’s power grid for the first time. In the 1960s, atomic energy was seen as an inexpensive and clean alternative to oil and coal and provided hopes for a renewed industrial upswing.

The first sign of criticism was seen in Germany in 1975 when protesters began demonstrating at a construction site of a planned nuclear plant. Critics in the southwestern German town of Wyhl expressed concerns over climate change, groundwater drawdown, and possible security problems in relation to nuclear plants. The anti-nuclear movement gained momentum in light of nuclear accidents such as the USA’s Three Mile Island meltdown of 1979, and the Chernobyl accident of 1986—both of which spread fear and panic among people. For decades, nuclear energy was a heavily debated subject in Germany until the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011 forced the German government to phase it out, permanently.

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While nuclear energy is seen as a positive alternative to fossil fuels in some parts of the world, in other countries it evokes existential angst. “When we think about why people are concerned when it comes to nuclear energy, we can point to the question of nuclear waste, to Chernobyl or Fukushima. In other words, to man-made or nature-dependent situations with technological failures and unsolved technical problems,” said Vater.

He and Trischler see a democratic success story in the nuclear energy debate. Vater said that a society—if it does not want to become technocratic, but wants to remain a participatory democracy—is dependent on goodwill, understanding, and support from its members. Trischler added that “something can emerge from the debate about technology scepticism,” and said that it is about a society’s struggle for co-determination and joint negotiation.

Man vs machine?

How fine the line can become between goodwill and scepticism, support and rejection, is proven by the current debate over AI. The American computer and cognitive scientist John McCarthy coined the phrase “artificial intelligence” in 1956 to describe a discipline of computer science whose goal was to create machines with human-like intellectual capabilities.

After decades of developments in the field, the debate over the topic has focused of late on, among other things, the chatbot ChatGPT, which launched in November 2022 and immediately sparked controversy. In March, Italy responded by becoming the first country to block the software, temporarily. It is now allowed again, but only after proof of the user’s age is presented.

Despite the many advantages AI promises—for example improved health care or increased road safety—there is also criticism of the technology. The fears seem to run in two directions: some worry about possible misuse, the spread of misinformation and their professional prospects and intellectual property, while others are afraid of future technical developments that could gradually give AI more power and thus result in a loss of human control.

Trischler attributes the fear of AI to the complexity of technology. “Worries arise especially with regard to large technical systems that seem anonymous,” he said. According to Vater, questions about, for instance, what impact AI might actually have on one’s profession are rational concerns as opposed to a general fear of the machine.

“To predict that the spread of AI will make all human creative effort superfluous and that machines will take over the world in the near future, that would be panic,” he said.

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Scepticism raises questions

So is a certain degree of scepticism toward new technologies a normal reaction? Christian Vater and Helmuth Trischler think so. “In hindsight, we often see that these fears have not materialised,” said Trischler, adding that they are understandable when seen in the context of their time.

The ability to make predictions is useful “because it helps us to tune in to the next steps of development as a group, as a society, perhaps even as humanity,” said Vater.

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