Pessimists and Progress

Lessons from skeptics throughout history

Black and white photograph of a bicycle leaning on the ground
Yosi Oka/Flickr

Pessimists Archive

Look up and you will find it: fear. Cohorts of citizenry—no matter their region, creed, nation, class, or race—are scared of what life sends our way, be it vaccines, fluoride, vapor trails, or genetically modified foods. We fear too much sitting, social media, cyberbullying, and dogs. Keep looking and there are video games, porn, cured meat, and oysters over which to fret. Hyperactive innovation and endless consumer choice create so many iterations and gradations of fear that you might rightly believe that civil society is driven not by shared interest but by shared terror.

The conflicting and contradictory—rational and irrational—nature of these fears suggests that we are not so good at assessing risk. But the fault is not really our own. Judging the safety of an innovation (due in part to our almost certain distance from its production) is a fraught endeavor. We muddle through as best we can, trusting those we trust, hoping that the medication we take does not turn out to be carcinogenic, that the cell phone won’t electromagnetically radiate our brains, and that the onslaught of murder our kids perpetuate on Minecraft will not result in a future of violent criminality. The pervasive perplexity of the new makes it all the more impressive that a lone podcaster has decided to chronicle it.

Pessimists Archive, hosted by Jason Feifer, editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur magazine, explores how previous generations reacted dubiously to innovations—the waltz, the telegraph, the novel, the subway—that today we take for granted as innocuous and even historically inevitable. The podcast is at its best when narrating the jarring experience of consumers facing an innovation for the first time.

Coffee provides a great example. This episode opens with the explosion of coffeehouses across late-17th-century England. Men flocked to them, so much so that women began to oppose the cafés on the grounds that men seemed to be more interested in coffee than in sex. A group of English women wrote in one petition, “Can any woman of sense or spirit endure with patience that when she approaches the nuptial bed expecting a man that should answer the vigor of her flames, [but] she on the contrary should only meet a bed full of bones?” A male petition offered an abrupt, if predictable, riposte: “Coffee … makes the erection more vigorous.” This back and forth over coffee’s health benefits played out for centuries, culminating in excellent news delivered by Dr. Peter Martin, founder of the Institute for Coffee Studies at Vanderbilt: “Coffee is very good for health.”

Feifer’s episode on the bicycle likewise explores with considerable credibility how the experience of pumping pedals for speed shaped assessments of risk in the 1890s. On occasion, too much low hanging fruit gets picked in Pessimists Archive—it’s easy to scoff at, say, the belief that reading novels would foster generalized lassitude. But Feifer’s treatment of the cycling craze is more nuanced and less prone to dismiss the early naysayers as idiot Luddites.

While it is fun to learn that bicycle haters believed that spinning wheels would cause insanity, that sustained speeds would warp the face into a condition called “bicycle face,” and that, according to The New York Times, the power of the bike would inspire “homicidal mania,” Feifer contextualizes these bizarre opinions in a more sympathetic perspective. “Let’s be fair,” he says. “This was basically the first time people traveled at speeds faster than a galloping horse. And experts of the day had no idea how that would impact the human body.” So they did what people have always done: “tended to assume the worst.”

But Feifer’s sympathy for such caution is limited. As one might expect, his entrepreneurial zeal dominates the podcast. Too often these deeply researched episodes falter on his whiggish attitude that all technological change is ipso facto confirmation of inevitable progress. While he is surely joking when he asserts “resistance is for losers!” you also sense that he believes it. The attitude is hardly assuaged when he elaborates more seriously on those who question technological change: “The people who feel threatened by something … put all their energy into resisting instead of putting their efforts into competing.”

When such rosy reverence for innovation dominates, which it often does, the result is a mash-up of practicality and triumph, which can be a dull way to do history. As smart and entertaining as this podcast can be—and very funny, too—it would be even better if it questioned the concept at the core its mission: progress.

The Dream

The Dream, a critical analysis of multilevel marketing companies, shows why the skepticism that Jason Feifer downplays so vehemently is so badly needed in today’s freewheeling culture of capitalism.

As host Jane Marie—a veteran of This American Life— brilliantly evokes in a bingeable series of 11 episodes, these companies (which are not, legally, pyramid schemes)—Mary Kay, Nu Skin, Herbalife, and Rodan and Fields—thrive on the faith-based rhetoric of corporate optimism. Think it will work. Believe that you will succeed. And God willing, you will.

But when it comes to MLMs, God is dead. As The Dream takes pains to make clear, selling an honest product in the public marketplace is not the primary focus of these operations. Companies generate considerable profit from within the firm. Selling a quota of power shakes or lip balm is typically not how distributors get promoted to directors. Instead, as Marie reports, distributors mainly climb the ladder by recruiting other distributors, who thereby contribute to the company’s revenue by buying required distribution items.

The Dream becomes a nightmare at the intersection of gender and business. Women are the ones who largely fall prey to these schemes. Episode six documents the experience of Katy Hyde, a woman who left a job in TV journalism to sign on with Mary Kay. As she recounts her experience, The Dream reveals the deeper psychological nature of the trap that held her in thrall to the promise of success. “You hate being [in debt] but you’re not sure how to leave and you feel guilty if you do,” Hyde says, in an altogether heartbreaking testimony.

The Dream shows how, especially in a business culture predicated on the promise of endless improvement, even the most educated and wary among us can be subject to the rhetorically intoxicating cocktail of wealth, hope, faith, and self-esteem.

Ben Franklin’s World

Toward the middle of the 18th century when male medical doctors began to replace midwifery with obstetrics, they introduced forceps into the birthing process. Historian Nora Doyle tells host Liz Covart (also a historian) that the use of this device—framed in the spirit of medical advancement—may actually have increased chances for infection, thereby making giving birth more dangerous for American women already preoccupied with birth-related mortality.

The host of Ben Franklin’s World, a production of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William and Mary, interviews mostly academic historians to uncover every imaginable aspect of the revolutionary and early republic periods of American history—forceps included. In addition to its remarkable comprehensiveness (with a particular emphasis on social and cultural topics), the podcast refuses to popularize in the gimmicky way that so much of history is reduced to little bites of gee-whiz candy. It’s geared more for the grad student preparing for comps, or the teacher brushing up on a topic before lecturing.

Episodes toggle between straight-up academic work—conceptions of the “state,” the convergence of Christianity and slavery, and religious identity during the Great Awakening—and engaging storytelling, such as the swindling schemes of Nipmuc Indian John Wompus and Benedict Arnold’s divorce from his wife Mary, both examples of solid narrative.

Perhaps inevitably, Ben Franklin’s World confronts an especially thorny pedagogical challenge: How can historians best present their ideas outside the traditional confines of the written text? In most classrooms today, nerdy professors give smart lectures accompanied by an array of images and/or PowerPoint slides bulleted with essential information. Remove those images, leave us with a disembodied voice more comfortable lecturing than conversing, and the history podcaster finds herself in a bind. One answer, as this impressive podcast confirms, is to tell a story so well that images are unnecessary.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

James McWilliams is an historian at Texas State University. He's currently at work on a book on the art and literature of the American South. He lives in Austin, Texas.


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