Media Resource

BackStory: Man vs. the Machine - Technophobia and American Society

An engraving of two workers destroying a mechanized loom.
Photo caption

Though their name is now used to signal a generalized, and usually negative, aversion to technology, the Luddites in England targeted very specific kinds of machines that posed a threat to their livelihoods. In 1721, the British government criminalized the destruction of machines and in 1812 made it a capital offense.

Technological and scientific changes are often portrayed as steps in a linear narrative of “progress” or “development.” The reality is far more complex. Rapid technological change can cause significant economic and social dislocations, the brunt of which are often borne unequally. And the pervasive idea that technology is somehow apolitical or neutral obscures the fact that the creation and dissemination of new technologies are always embedded in political and social landscapes.

This episode of BackStory entitled "Man vs. the Machine: Technophobia and American Society" discusses the ways people in the U.S. have responded to technological changes over the centuries, highlighting that suspicion of such changes is often reasonable and warranted, especially for minority and marginalized groups.

A full transcript of the episode is available at the BackStory website.

Alexa, I’m Lonely (00:45-5:00)

Comprehension Questions

  • How can smart speakers and virtual assistants make life more convenient?
  • Why are voices so powerful and emotionally resonant for human beings?
  • What are some of the risks of emotionally aware computers and “frictionlessness”?
Electric Feel (5:00-16:50)

Comprehension Questions

  • What were some early fears about the railroad?
  • What were some early hopes for the railroad?
  • What were some of the longer-term effects of railroads? How did the economic power of railroad companies shape community life, especially in the middle west?
  • Why were people afraid of electricity?
  • How have technological changes shaped the English language? What might these changes reflect about the ways people related to electricity?

Additional Resources

BackStory has created a lesson plan for this episode which focuses on the early nineteenth century market revolution and is designed for AP U.S. History classes.

The EDSITEment lesson plan The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad (grades 6-8) discusses the differential impacts the railroad had on Native Americans, immigrants, and other groups. To whom did the benefits of the railroad accrue?

Bringing Back the Blues (17:48-27:15)

Comprehension Questions

  • What role did observance of the Sabbath play in the Puritans’ decision to leave England?
  • What brought conflicts over the practice of keeping Sabbath to the fore in daily life?
  • What arguments were made for and against Sabbath and blue laws? How did workers figure on each side of the debate?
  • What two forces does Shulevitz identify as contributing to the end of the blue laws?
  • What does Shulevitz think is a possible secular alternative to blue laws? What challenges would people face in trying to take intentional time away from work and other obligations? Do you think these obstacles are the same for everyone?
The Terror of Technology (27:30-41:46)

Comprehension Questions

  • Who were the historical Luddites in Britain?
  • What was the neo-Luddism movement in the 1990s?
  • According to Steven Jones, what is the danger of the neo-Luddite tendency to view technology as “a force outside of humanity”?
  • Why does Jones think it is important to focus on who controls data and whose interests are served by its collection and use?

Additional Resources

One way to examine the ways technology intersects with and perpetuates human prejudice and racial inequality is through housing. For much of the twentieth century, racially restrictive covenants were used to exclude Black people and other non-white minority groups from purchasing or renting properties in certain areas. These restrictive covenants worked in tandem with practices like redlining (in which mortgage companies, including the Federal Housing Administration, labeled certain areas where predominantly African American and other minority groups lived “hazardous” and refused to provide loans to people buying homes in these areas) to exclude Black people and other minorities from home ownership, one of the most important mechanisms for building wealth.

As private and federal funds flowed instead to “desirable” areas—largely white suburbs, as the EDSITEment lesson American Utopia: The Architecture and History of the Suburb discusses—this unequal investment led to intergenerational poverty, with the effects of redlining still visible in many urban areas to this day. The digital humanities project Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America (created by teams at the University of Richmond, Virginia Tech, and the University of Maryland, along with other scholars) shows how neighborhoods were classified by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (a New Deal agency) and includes hundreds of digitized maps and reports from surveyors who assessed the “creditworthiness” of urban areas.

The lesson plan A Raisin in the Sun: Whose "American Dream"? provides a compelling and honest look into one family's aspiration to move to another Chicago neighborhood and the thunderous crash of a reality that African Americans faced when attempting to do so.

Though racially restrictive covenants and redlining were made illegal in the 1960s, new online technologies enable continued discrimination through innovations like targeted advertising and short-term rentals. This essay from Public Books by geographer Desiree Fields describes how patterns of exclusion established in the 20th century are reinforced by new technologies in the 21st.

About BackStory

Founded in 2008, BackStory is a weekly podcast that explores the historical roots of current events. Hosted by a team of historians of the United States, the show features interviews with other scholars and public historians, seeking to bring U.S. history to life. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the show do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Learn more at the BackStory website.