Progress & Panic

Amy Johnson and I ran a Berkman fellows hour on progress narratives and moral panics this week and I thought it was worth writing up for posterity here. This all stems from the thinking I’ve been doing on how we talk about technology. This is also inspired by spending time this year with the History of Technology and STS (In addition to being a Berkman fellow, Amy is actually in the HASTS program at MIT, I just like to pretend by auditing).

Our set up discussed these panics and progress concepts as narrative devices and linguistic structures for discourse, so we didn’t get too far into the topics they often get employed to talk about (i.e. should we actually be worried about some of these subjects of moral panics?). Don’t worry, we tried to keep the postmodernism to a minimum.


We started off by talking through a pair of examples from The New York Times that illustrate how these narrative tools operate in our popular consciousness. One was about a digital detox camp celebrating disconnection, the other an infographic citing a bunch of Silicon Valley futurists on progress and what will become archaic technologies in the near future.

We offered up some definitions and flag words/themes:

Progress narrative: an imagined trajectory for a (new) technology or social change that reveals movement toward an ultimate ideal state; we are implicitly or explicitly asked to continue along our current path to achieve it.

Flags: universalism, frontier, never before (presentism, exceptionalism), teleological, efficiency, equalizing, innovation, transformation, freedom, Science, modernization, inevitability, extension, growth

Moral panic narrative: an imagined trajectory for a (new) technology or social change that reveals almost-inevitable future catastrophe; we are called, implicitly or explicitly, to take action now to prevent it.

Flags: violence, sex and promiscuity, children or youth, environment, determinism

I offered up a few things to think about to unpack or anticipate a progress narrative or a moral panic. To address progress narratives, historians of technology have asked the following questions:

  • Better for whom? Better for what? Better under what conditions? (Alder)

  • Easier for whom? Faster for whom? Under what conditions?  (Cowan)

And technologies that elicit moral panics tend to fall into a couple categories:

  • It changes your relationship to time.

  • It changes your relationship to space.

  • It changes your relationship to other people. (Bell)

Then we got into a debate, splitting the room between pro and con arguing for a moral panic thesis, and then a progress narrative thesis:

  • Google Glass will help pedophiles stalk your children.

  • Autonomous vehicles will drive us into a more efficient and safer future.

The debate format was fun because it demonstrated how difficult it is to argue against these narrative structures that are built to shut down rational, non-emotional logic. We encouraged people to call others out when they invoked a progress narrative to counter a moral panic position, and vice versa (rewarded with candy).

Amy then discussed the work that moral panics and progress narratives do for us, explaining why they are so damn compelling and difficult to counter. These narratives take on a universal perspective: With progress, if we do x, we will understand everything in the world. With moral panics, if we don’t do x, humanity will go to hell in a handbasket. But in either case, the ‘we’ that we’re talking about is hard to pin down. Moral panic narratives often involve speaking on behalf of some population or entity that we’ve decided can’t speak for itself. We should be wary of discursive altruism. Amy also argued that they appeal to the same instinct (which I will admit, kind of blew my mind)—the desire to make sense of our relationship to a larger context, the one invoking fear about (technological) change, the other hope. Narratives are so seductive because they are how we organize and understand the world. (I am just now reminded of a friend from undergrad who wrote a term paper on the “Tyranny of Narrative.”)

In an effort to understand our these structures better from the inside out, we split off to build our own progress and panic narratives around Snapchat and ephemeral media. Groups took on the role of parents, governments, journalists, and tech companies, and constructed either moral panics or progress narratives of their choosing. Questions included: What is the future you fear, or the future you desire? We then presented and gave the interest groups an opportunity to respond to each other.


It was a interesting to workshop something that is so pervasive we often don’t recognize it. We offered up some tools to flag where these narrative devices crop up, and to understand the work that they do rhetorically. Admittedly, the session focused more on identifying the problem, so we’d love to follow up with another session about constructively avoiding and combatting these structures so that we can make our own work better. But for now we’ve offered a means to see where these structures are hiding; once you have a frame, it’s much easier to spot these stories out in the wild.