It’s hard to believe now but when Sony introduced the Walkman, the portable cassette player, in 1979, people feared the device would turn users into “wind up non-humans” who would walk heedlessly into traffic. In 1981, one newspaper headline asked, “Will personal headphones lead to a world of silence?” By 1983, a Canadian paper called for their outright ban. Civilization emerged intact, somehow, even as the Walkman gave way to personal CD players and MP3 players and now smartphones that carry not just our music libraries, but anything found on the internet: streaming music, movies, audible books, and podcasts. The old fears give way to new ones, with the ironic grace note in this case being the renewed popularity of cassette tapes and those little devices that play them just for you…
“This is a subject that has interested me for a long time: the idea of how the past informs our present,” says Jason Feifer. In 2016 the Brooklyn-based journalist discovered the Twitter feed of Pessimists Archive (@PessimistsArc). It tweeted what Feifer describes as “snippets of newspaper articles from the 1800s about people yelling about bicycles and cars, or whatever. I just had this crazy experience where it just felt like I had come across something that I, in a parallel universe, had made.”
Feifer reached out to the man who started it, and the two started talking. Soon they developed the idea for a podcast on the same topic. Feifer would host, and the show would dive deep into the dramatic, and often irrational, fears of the past, as a ways of making a broader point about the present. “You see that the people of the past weren’t correct. Enough time has passed that we can definitively say that they weren’t correct,” says Feifer. “To me, the conclusion is obvious, which is that if they were wrong then, today’s people are likely wrong, too.”
Since its launch, Pessimists Archive has covered 16 topics, ranging from the Walkman to chain stores—things we take for granted now that once freaked people out. He prefers subjects that have now been deemed safe and even essential, and whose early objections have been forgotten. “If you know anything about history, you know what people said about the TV,” says Feifer, “because people still say it now. But who the hell knew that the Brits were really upset about the umbrella?”
The British hatred of the umbrella seems to have been grounded in some weird notion of national exceptionalism (being cold and wet builds British character, the thinking went), protectionism (London coach drivers counted on people flagging them when it rained) and a pervasive suspicion of the French, who adopted the umbrella first. It’s a classic example of something that now seems so benign, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would have objected before. (Chess was another; turns out despots worried about games in which kings were regularly toppled.)
More difficult are topics that still spark debate, which is why Feifer was initially resistant to producing an episode on vaccinations — the only episode of Pessimists Archive that touches on a subject that’s still hot today. “I had to get talked into it,” says Feifer. “The ground rule that I had set early on was that we only focused on things that today are totally settled—settled in the way in which nobody even is aware that anyone would ever have been opposed to it. Which is not vaccines. I mean, scientifically the question is settled, but culturally it certainly isn’t.”
Feifer took the historical route and avoided stepping onto today’s anti-vaxxer minefield, even though the central conflict remains unchanged (personal liberty versus the greater public good). The episode opens with a smallpox outbreak in Boston in 1901. Though the city vaccinated 400,000 people in an attempt to head off an epidemic, early anti-vaxxers protested, saying the treatment was unnecessary and intrusive, and a quack doctor named Immanuel Pfeiffer (no relation to Feifer) walked through a quarantined smallpox ward and emerged without getting sick–which obviously didn’t settle the larger debate.
Mostly, though, as Pessimists Archive sticks to humorous looks at the Chicken Littles of yesteryear. The tone of the podcast is light, even campy, as Feifer and others read from old editorials and marvel at the attitudes of the past.
Pessimists Archive tends to see nostalgia cynically, as a longing for something that never really existed, or existed in a way that was less perfect than remembered. The episode about chain stores explores how A&P supermarkets was one of the first national chains, for example, and one of the first to be attacked for coming after small-town way of life. But Feifer reminds listeners that African-Americans loved A&P: It got them out from under the thumb of avaricious local merchants, who often hooked them on credit. (The Sears catalogue was also popular with African-Americans in the Jim Crow South; customers could pay fair prices for items, and avoid the prejudice that came with shopping in most white establishments.) The episode also reminds listeners that what goes around comes around: A&P and Sears have struggled financially in recent years. Walmart was spooked by Amazon, and, as hard as may be to imagine, Amazon will someday be spooked by something undreamt of, even by Jeff Bezos.
“It’s a bummer to travel the world and see the same stores everywhere,” Feifer allows. But “people complaining about something new put all their energy into resisting and none into competing. What you do is innovate. You change. You adapt.”
With this message, Feifer’s podcast dovetails with his day job as editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur magazine. “The theme of both is the same,” he says. “And that theme is embracing change. The number one question I get is: ‘What is the quality of a successful entrepreneur?’ And my answer is, ‘You have to be willing to change: Change yourself, change your ideas, and your company. And embrace the idea that the thing that works today is not going to work tomorrow.’”
To illustrate, he tells people about the advent of the bicycle and “the felt hat man.” In 1896 a reporter talked to people whose lives and careers would be affected by this newfangled contraption. There was the bar owner, who complained that bike riders drank more water than beer. There was the cobbler, who said he couldn’t sell as many heavy formal shoes; now everyone wanted lighter shoes to ride bikes with.
“And then he talks to my favorite, the guy who sells the fancy felt hats,” says Feifer. “And the guy who sells fancy felt hats is, of course, very upset because people are buying cycling caps instead of the fancy felt hats. And he proposes that every cyclist should be mandated to purchase two felt hats a year, to offset the financial losses that he’s experiencing because of the bicycle.”
Entrepreneurs laugh when Feifer tells them that story, but he doesn’t let them off the hook that easily, telling them, “I offer to you that every one of us has done some version of that, where we had achieved something, we’ve reached some state that we were comfortable with in our business and we said, ‘This is it, I am holding on to this.’”
His outlook isn’t simply that change is good; he admits that some fears, such as the effect television might have on our politics, let alone our society, are still being tested. But change is inevitable, and why not try to find the upside?
“Just imagine what that idiot fancy felt hat guy would have, imagine the riches he could have had if he decided that he doesn’t sell fancy felt hats—he sells hats, right? And so, he will make the hats that people want, not fancy felt hats, perhaps. ‘What kind of hats you guys want? I’ll make those.’ That guy would have made a killing, because right now, the hat and cap industry today is significantly larger than the bicycle industry as a whole.”