When did we start worrying about technology?

I’ve heard about the luddites but how much earlier did individuals or philosophers or whoever start fretting over new technologies and their potential to destroy our livelihoods or control us? Are there Roman or Greek or earlier texts bemoaning the adoption of some advancement? I don’t know if this has a specific factual answer that can be ascertained but I’ve posted it in GQ. Mods if you think it would fit in better elsewhere move it where ya like. Thanks,
An Gadaí

Suetonius mentions this about Vespasian in Lives of the 12 Caesars:

This is commonly interpreted as an example of a Roman emperor choosing against technology. It appears that the thinking on this has changed recently, though.

I don’t know the answer to the OP’s question about the ancients, but I’ll bump the thread to point out that fear of new technology has long been a rich source of fiction, at least since Frankenstein (1818), when the frightening new technology was the harnessing of electricity.

In the 50s, the new technology was nuclear, and we got a spate of movies and books about killer mutants (sometimes human, sometimes animal).

Other more recent examples of technology-gone-awry fiction: Bladerunner, The Matrix, Jurassic Park.

Fear that technology may destroy us is related to but slightly distinct from the fear that technology may displace us. You seem to be asking about both, and I see that Arunja34 has come up with an example of the latter phenomenon.

As for the former, I don’t know whether the ancients had such fears. I’m trying to imagine a then-new technology that might have given them the shivers, but I’m not coming up with anything. (Plumbing? No. Concrete? No…)

How about Greek Fire, which scared the pants off people? Or the focusing mirrors which set ships on fire at sea? Or the recursive bow?

The ancients had far more technology than we normally give them credit for. See Was there a moratorium on technology during the Roman Empire for a brief discussion. We hear more about military technologies such as the ones listed above than everyday civilian technologies because the sources that survived talk more about military battles than everyday life.

The Catholic Church over and over banned certain weapons from use because they were too fearsome – although they could be used against Saracens and heretics, of course.

I thought this was still considered to be true, at least from recent references I’ve read. Could you say more about who says it’s not and why?

I can’t find the cite, but I read somewhere that some ancient Greek bemoaned the invention of writing, because now no one would take the trouble to develop their memory and know all the epic poems and sagas by heart.

I read it as not such anti-technology so much as Vespasian had too many unemployed proletarians to find work projects for already; he didn’t need labor-saving technology.

Didn’t Mythbusters smoke that one?

Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon describes a world in which all machines are forbidden. The populace viewed technology as dangerous because it was always improving. Inevitably, the process of improvement would continue until machines had no need of humans at all; they would be able to reproduce themselves. At that point, the machines would be locked in a struggle with their competitors: humans.

Sixty years later, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, where humans are produced as machines are produced, according to specifications laid out by official policy. This raises questions about human nature and our distinctiveness from machines.

I don’t know much about the writings from ancient Roman times, but these are two pretty clear-cut examples of the worries mentioned in the OP.

From Terry Jones’ Barbarians, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira:

I’m afraid I don’t take Mythbusters as a good source for history.

I think your contempt may have run away with you. Mythbusters did a very good job of testing the possibility, making everything as accurate as possible, using quite a lot of resources. It just didn’t work, even given much better conditions than the actual circumstances would have allowed. Rumors and vague reports should not outweigh active, recorded experiments.

Some MIT students got open flame in less than 10 minutes in the same experiment. They went out and did the same thing with the mythbusters, but couldn’t repeat it.

FWIW, neither do I.

They do seem to do a pretty good job with science and engineering, though.

I’m not quite sure why the experiment you cite that didn’t work trumps the experiments I cited that did work. It’s very easy to get an experiment wrong.

And looking at the challenge against the MIT team, I again wonder about their history.


Again, this appears to be contradicted by my cite.

I haven’t argued that the myth must be true, just that it must be considered. But obviously one recreation of it that fails is no proof at all of its accuracy one way or the other. Nor is ten, for that matter. One success doesn’t prove that Archimedes succeeded either. But there appear to have been a long series of successes, which makes it far harder to dismiss the entire notion out of hand.

On further reflection, I think that worrying about technology really took off after World War 1. Up until then the Europeans and Americans had mostly benefited from the industrial revolution; despite some misgivings, the wealth and power industrialization brought were too obvious to ignore. But then the mechanized slaughter of WW1 brought home technology’s dark side. It’s noteworthy that even before the invention of nuclear weapons, many people thought another “Great War” would tear down civilization.