4 Things That Were Going To Kill Us All (Until They Didn't)
As Nietzsche once said, "That which doesn't kill us nevertheless ends up in a thinkpiece about how it's going to kill us." Every technological breakthrough or big cultural shift seems to come with some portion of the population shouting, "The end is nigh!" In Ancient Greece, Socrates complained that the invention of writing would ruin everyone's memory. In modern times, we all know that the internet and smartphones are destroying our brains. (We know this because it's one of the many facts we've learned from the internet, on our smartphones.)
There have been countless articles written about how our modern devices are making us unhappy, socially incompetent weirdos. But these articles underestimate what unhappy, socially incompetent weirdos we've always been. And that's not a new thing. That overreaction has been around for ages. Here are four big historical changes that made people in their time cower in fear but turned out to be complete non-issues.
"Phones Are The Work Of The Devil!"
Smartphones have been associated with extreme stress, euphoria, addiction, and even insanity. Oh, sorry, not smartphones -- regularphones. The telephone was invented in 1876, yet the concerns people had about it then are strikingly similar to the hand-wringing we now see over cellphone addiction: It will cause information overload, people will lose the ability to personally connect with one another, they'll try to port fighting games onto it but it just won't work without a third-party patch, etc.
One worry about the original phone, however, didn't make the leap to its modern descendant. People feared the telephone was an instrument of Satan. It was apparently a pretty natural reaction to have, because it happened independently in different locations. In one incident, the clergy in Ethiopia damned and burned the phone of the minister of justice because it shocked him. (That's why AppleCare doesn't cover damage from water or clergy mistaking bugs for Lucifer's handiwork.)
You're fired! Hahahaha- WAIT, NOT IN THE FACE!
In another, Swedish preachers similarly condemned the phone as hellspawn and people sabotaged telephone lines, fearing that they attracted evil spirits. Whether the demon spirits were supposedly communicating the messages -- somehow enslaved by the telephone -- or whether they were just seizing the opportunity to overhear who in Helsingborg made the best fiskbullar, I do not know. What I do know is, if you could work out the logic you'd have a tall, blond, alcohol-fueled prequel to The Ring.
"Tomatoes Are Poison!"
The history books tell us that when first discovered, people thought tomatoes were poisonous. And when the history books say "people," they mean "white people." By the time Columbus landed in the Americas, the Aztecs had been eating tomatoes for centuries. Europeans then showed up saying, "Don't eat that! It's poison! We know because of our advanced scientific knowledge. Now hold still while I leech the bad blood out of you."
There were two main reasons Europeans thought tomatoes would kill you. First, the tomato plant is indeed poisonous. It's a member of the nightshade family, which includes deadly nightshade, a plant so poisonous two of its berries can kill a human adult right in the face. Oh, and did I mention the berries of the deadly nightshade are sweet and also look like blueberries? It's basically a plant that proves nature is actively trying to seduce-murder you. That was enough to discourage people from experimenting with its larger cousin, the tomato.
Are you threatening me?
Second, eating tomatoes actually did kill some Europeans (though not for the reason they thought). New foods coming in from the Americas meant that Europeans got to experience things they could never have dreamed of, things like flavors. Their traditional foods of bread and hunger did not react with much of anything, be it the pewter plates they ate on or their taste buds. Tomatoes, on the other hand, did react with both of those things. The high level of acidity in the tomatoes leached the lead from the pewter, causing some people to die of lead poisoning. Ha! History people are stupid.
That's two strikes against tomatoes: They're related to a plant that seems like it was genetically engineered to murder children and eating them was sometimes followed by death. So, it's somewhat surprising that a lot of Europeans grew tomatoes anyway. What could motivate these cautious Europeans to cultivate death plants in their homes? They grew them just because they were so dang pretty. Yeah, try giving the love of your life one of those bad boys on Valentine's Day.
Like a spherical femme fatale stuffed into a red dress, I imagine the tomato inspired conversations like:
"Oh darling, let's not grow tomatoes. They're big, brightly colored sacks of poison. What if one of the children eats one and dies?"
"Dearest, we live in 16th-century Europe. If we start worrying about what might kill the children, we'll never get anything done."
"Your modern thinking is enlightening."
Wait, that's not a child. That's a goat. Feed it tomatoes!
This means that tomatoes sat in people's homes, staring at them, brighter than anything they'd seen before, more flavorful than anything they'd tasted, yet they thought they couldn't eat them. All because their plates were toxic. Well, if sitcoms have taught us anything, it's that a precarious situation like that can't last long. Yep, figuring out their silly little mix-up just took Europe a mere 200 years.
The clincher was when pizza was finally invented, because nobody could argue with pizza. Only after all of that did tomatoes begin to catch on in the United States. Think about that: People in what is now Mexico had been eating tomatoes since before they had writing, but it took over 200 years and a trip across the Atlantic and back for people in the United States to say, "You know, I think we should eat these motherfuckers!"
"Music Will Destroy Us All!"
At this point, most of us are clear on the moral panic cycle of pop music: The younger generation pushes boundaries further than their parents, their parents say, "I was a cool kid, but this! This is too far!" Their kids don't listen, get grounded/hurt/arrested/cool tattoos, and if that doesn't define their entire life, they grow up and have little kids who can scandalize them one day. This has been happening forever. Jazz didn't destroy our youth -- neither did Elvis, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, KISS, Judas Priest, NWA, 2Pac, or Eminem.
But that's been around forever, right? The '40s thought of jazz as "moral degeneration" because it was played in bars. Parents of the 1950s thought rock 'n' roll was sex-fueled Satan music. The '60s were going to be destroyed by the hippie music that promoted drug use, sexual freedom, and rebellion against the government and military. The '70s were going to destroy us all because their music sucked. And also all of the cocaine that went along with the nightlife. Music from the '80s was a cocaine funnel ... oh, and that whole "devil music" thing popped up again when metal got big. Even the shitty hair metal bands were supposedly minions of Lucifer. And 1990s gangsta rap was supposed to obliterate our youth by turning them all into gang-bangers. Then Marilyn Manson happened. Whatever. We're all still here.
Well ... mostly.
Looking back, it's hard to even believe a previous generation's prissy mindset. Today, refusing to show Elvis' hips on The Ed Sullivan Show seems as implausibly prudish as the old myth about Victorian piano leg covers. Worrying that your kids will be corrupted by the lyric I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day seems absurd looking back from a post-"Smell Yo Dick" world.
Without so much as a "click here to confirm that you're 18," kids today have free access to porn, violence, and even some naughty words. As of yet, they don't appear to be fucking and fighting their way across the U.S. like Road Warrior Babies. Will the next generation be different from the previous one? Sure! One would hope so, right? Will their problems be objectively worse than those of their parents'? I haven't seen any data to support that, and I read parts of three different Wikipedia entries for this article. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to make some tiny tire armor for a movie idea I just had.
"Train Travel Will Rip Your Goddamn Face Off!"
People feared train travel would literally destroy our children's futures. The belief was that women's bodies simply could not handle being accelerated to 50 miles per hour. They thought that achieving this unprecedented speed would cause a woman's uterus to fly right out of her body. The basis for this fear was, of course, the fact that ... well ... science? I guess it was that ladies are delicate, so the most lady part of the lady must be the most delicate part?
Though no bodies disintegrated, trains did cause catastrophes. They were just boring, predictable catastrophes like people getting crushed to death (something everyone in the 1800s would have been very familiar with) or, at worst, the movie Snowpiercer. Women's uteri did not fly out the moment they reached 50 miles per hour, like some kind of Troma-made Back To The Future III. Unsurprisingly, the prediction based on nothing but irrational fear of the unknown did not come to pass.
Though, to be fair, these cars were pelted off by dislodged wombs.
And that's kind of the deal with all of these, right? Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. Fear of a flying uterus.
To me, the take-home message of these examples isn't that all change is good or that there's never cause to be alarmed. I'd say the Cuban Missile Crisis deserved a good deal of "holy shitting," for example. And it seems like global climate change is something that could make our lives objectively suck. I'm just advocating a healthy dose of skepticism when articles insinuate we're all headed for Sodom and Gomorrah because Lemonade teaches kids these days to firebomb cancer research centers. Maybe I'm preaching to the converted, advocating skepticism on Cracked. If I am, please remember: Telephones were built by Satan to rot our brains and intercept your hot goss. Amen.
Aaron Kheifets is an occasionally mustachioed comedian, writer, and director. You are allowed to follow him on Twitter, watch his videos, and look at his website.
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