History's Notes on Resisting Progress: From Airplanes & The Printing Press to Bitcoin

This post was originally published on HackerNoon, and I'm re-publishing it on here.

Why do we insist on stalling our own technological progress? I think history has some answers.

For millennia, inventors have been creating technologies that improve our lives. And for millennia, humans have been resisting, scorning, and mocking these inventions before recognizing them as massive value-adds.

We’re seeing the same theme play out today in Bitcoin.

Clashes between tradition and new technology tend to lead to negative media campaigns and aggressive efforts to distort public opinion.


One notable example is The War of Currents.

In the final decades of the 19th century, Thomas Edison launched a brutal propaganda campaign against Nikola Tesla and his investor George Westinghouse. In an attempt to demonize Tesla’s alternating current (AC) in favor of his company’s direct current (DC), Edison masterminded a cruel display where he publicly electrocuted an elephant to “demonstrate the dangers of AC”. The aim of the brutish stunt was to forever associate Tesla’s AC with death in the eyes of the public.

It didn’t work.

JP Morgan, who backed Edison’s business as an investor, pulled strings to cut Tesla’s funding and blocked other investors from supplying any capital. Even though there were legitimate technical concerns about AC that required further engineering to improve, Edison’s crusade fogged its development.

At the time Morgan & Edison’s efforts worked to temporarily distort the public’s perception of AC. But seeing as we’re all using primarily AC today to power everything from kitchen appliances to electric lamps, we can infer that Tesla’s technologically-superior invention won out in the long run.

As the late Harvard Kennedy Professor of International Development Calestous Juma wrote in his account, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, "The biggest risk that society faces by adopting approaches that suppress innovation is that they amplify the activities of those who want to preserve the status quo by silencing those arguing for a more open future."

High-ranking figures and institutions who benefit asymmetrically from maintaining the status quo will often stoop down to fear-mongering to demonize technologies that threaten it.

Misguided warnings by regarded members of society go back further than Edison. Renowned Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner was one of the early alarmists about the Printing Press causing information overload.

His extensive work, Bibliotheca Universalis, contains passages that warn against the unmanageable surplus of information opened up by the printing press – causing damage to our brains.

Concerns about literacy’s effect on our minds extend back to the birth of literacy itself. Even Socrates famously warned that written documents would cause us to become forgetful due to a lack of face-to-face communication. He believed his arbitrary drawbacks to the written word outweighed the benefits.

Warnings like these are duly repeated throughout history. Older generations cling to their familiar “unharmful” technologies while ignoring the fact that those same technologies were considered harmful when first invented.

Consider the extreme example of how, for nearly 400 years, the Ottomans blocked the use of printing technology for religious reasons. In 1485 Sultan Bayezid II banned printing books in Arabic script. And 30 years later, a harsher edict, by Sultan Selim I mandated that “occupying oneself with the science of printing was punishable by death.”

Even though Muslims were already familiar with Chinese printing technology (who they traded extensively with) the four-century non-adoption of printing was totally voluntary, driven by an active choice by leadership to bear down on the status quo.

Sometimes conservative values can ossify so deeply that, in the absence of a clear argument against new superior technology, status quo proponents appeal to people’s sense of nostalgia.

Early 20th-century anti-tractor rhetoric provides another compelling example. Draft animal producers and traders saw industrialization as a threat to their way of life. But since they understood that blocking the growth of tractor technology was impractical, they launched an advertising campaign glorifying the virtues of farm animals.

The Horse Association of America – whose publication reached millions of readers – issued pamphlets proclaiming that “A mule is the only fool-proof tractor ever built.”

What’s striking is how consistent these progress-blocking attempts are from one century to the next. Certain groups routinely object to technologies that change accepted traditions, even when it’s clear how the next wave of inventions could benefit them personally.

When mechanical refrigeration started posing competition for the natural ice industry in the 19th century, the natural ice industry fought back by launching a smear campaign claiming that mechanical refrigeration was a “dangerous chemical mystery,” deflecting attention away from the fact that it extends the shelf life of foods, breaks bacterial developments, and makes stored foods more accessible and abundant.

In defense of what had for many decades been an extremely profitable business model, natural ice proponents unsuccessfully clung to “naturalness” as their main argument.

Knee jerk dismissal of new technology has perhaps been most rampant across military history. Right at the turn of the 20th century, some members of the military were bringing airplane technology to the attention of leaders after the news of the Wright Brothers broke.

French Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch during World War 1 famously said in 1911, “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.”*This represented the broader attitude of the military towards the application of flying machines at the time, 8 years after the first human flight by the Wright Brothers.


Today, the same pattern has emerged with the introduction of Bitcoin.

Cynics tend to dismiss the existing body of use cases Bitcoin is bringing to countries like Venezuela, where decades of reckless leadership and devastating inflation have eroded the bolívar’s value to near zero. As thousands of citizens flee to neighboring countries – living on rationed groceries and medicine – those who use Bitcoin are able to escape with their life savings stored in the borderless network.

Or how about the Syrian refugees who are able to use Bitcoin’s global rails to transport their life savings out of the country by memorizing 12 words – without having to ask permission or verify their identity?

History shows us that the attacks on Bitcoin are unsurprising and, in fact, expected.

After all, global, secure savings account for billions of people who have no other option sure does threaten the monetary status quo that currently keeps poor people poor and the wealthy elite even wealthier.

One thing’s for sure: resistance to progress has happened before, it’s happening now, and it’ll happen again. If you’re still making up your mind about Bitcoin, it’s helpful to recognize that fact.