Unprecedented opportunities for courtship and infidelity – the travesty of the telegraph

MOST media stories about the internet concern its evil deeds: its fame-a-fying of Finnish serial shooters is just one, not particularly grammatical, example. Reading the headlines, it’s easy to assume that the cyber-sphere poses a threat like no other. There have, however, been many precedents.

Guess which technological breakthrough was accused of causing young people to fritter away their lives on frivolous confabulations and licentious flirtations with dangerous strangers?

That’s right, technophobes. Long before email, Facebook and YouPorn, accusations of innocent luring, smut purveying and horse frightening were being levelled at the 19th-century telegraph.

According to The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage (business editor of The Economist), the telegraph was associated with what seem like quintessentially modern phenomena such as hackers, chat rooms, flame wars, Nigerian-esque scams and online romances and weddings.

It also prompted grave fears of information overload and moral breakdown.

Standage quotes from an 1866 article called The Dangers of Wired Love, which recounts the real-life story of 20-year-old Maggie McCutcheon, a cluey young minx who got to operate the telegraph in her father’s Brooklyn newspaper stand because poor old dad couldn’t get his head round the new-fangled technology. Sound familiar?

Before long, Maggie was flirting online with several young men, including a married chap named Frank Frisbie. This wanton couple even contrived, egads, to meet each other in the real world.

When Mr McCutcheon busted his daughter, he took the only reasonable course of action available: he followed her to one of her dangerous liaisons with the Frizzer and threatened to blow her brains out. (Apparently the 19th-century equivalent of removing mobile phone privileges.)

“These themes of parental technical deficiency and ensuing parental loss of control in the face of a daughter’s appropriation of the technology for her own ends are common in the literature and publicity surrounding all the communications technologies,” Justine Cassell and Meg Cramer write in a new essay called High Tech or High Risk in Digital Young, Innovation, and the Unexpected (published by MIT Press).

Cassell and Cramer go on to reveal that the invention of the telephone resulted in even more hair-tearing and girl-punishing.

As with the telegraph, society’s moral guardians felt the big T should be used for business purposes only. It was believed that recreational use of this frightening new device would cultivate delinquency and lead to “inappropriate or dangerous discussions, such as illicit wooing”.

“The doors may be barred and a rejected suitor kept out, but how is the telephone to be guarded?” one worried parent moaned in a 1905 issue of Telephony. “(It’s) providing unprecedented opportunities for courting and infidelity.”

Other commentators worried that the telephone was making social contacts brief and impersonal, increasing the pace of life and threatening personal privacy. Once again, sound familiar?

Hysteria about popular youth-culture pursuits hasn’t been limited to new technology, either. In Why TV is Good for Kids, Catharine Lumby and Duncan Fine track a number of moral panics from the past, including novels (blamed for increasing prostitution, adulterous behaviour and elopements in the 1700s) and American comic books (believed to cause crime and carry foreign diseases in Australia in the 1930s).

Even good old-fashioned exercise used to be a worry, at least where women were concerned. A female bicycling craze in the 1800s met with great resistance from the male medical establishment, which warned of all sorts of terrible gynaecological and moral hazards. Bike saddles were said to induce menstruation and cause contracted vaginas, collapsed uteruses and busted hymens. “Further,” Mariah Burton Nelson writes in Nike is a Goddess, “while appearing to enjoy an innocent, healthful ride, female cyclists might use the upward tilt of the saddle to engage in the `solitary vice’ of masturbation.”

Which brings us back to the internet. The revelation that unfounded techno-panics existed in the past doesn’t prove that all concerns about cyberspace will turn out to be baseless. But it does suggest the dread-mongering should be kept in perspective.

It also reveals that the indomitable human drive to invent and upgrade is matched only by the equally relentless urge to slack off at work and flirt inappropriately, an oddly comforting realisation in these strange and technologically chaotic times.

- originally published in The Australian on 02-10-2008.

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