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Does It Matter That Americans Fear The Future of Technology?

First of all a couple of procedural matters: I’ll be enabling comments on the site within the next few days. That’s been the plan all along but I wanted to make sure that I set it up to minimize comment spam. Also, I’ll be recording the first ‘Future Fallout’ podcast within the next 48 hours. While we’re building the site audience the podcast will be a weekly thing. Stay tuned.

DOES IT MATTER THAT AMERICANS FEAR THE FUTURE OF TECHNOLOGY?

I received an interesting email yesterday that made a simple point: it doesn’t matter what opinion Americans have about the future of technology and the myriad changes that are forthcoming. The change will happen anyway and people will be forced to deal with it. Those who shun technology will be at a disadvantage but that doesn’t matter to those of us who embrace it.

This is the same idea expressed in an article on the Vice.com owned ‘Motherboard’ website entitled ‘It Doesn’t Matter That Americans Are Scared of New Technology‘. The major points of the article are a) people adjust to new technology very quickly and b) public sentiment about the future of technology doesn’t drive technological innovation. On the first point there are plenty of historical examples:

To find out what gives, I called up Jonathan Moreno, a Penn State University bioethicist who, beyond working on our future military cyborgs, spends a lot of time thinking about the cultural implications of new tech.

“I’m not impressed that this tells us very much how people will respond in a real case,” Moreno said. “If you go back and look at historical change, people were terrified of horse and carriages, they were shocked you could go 10 miles per hour on a train. But then, once you get them on it, we got very comfortable going from 10-40 miles an hour.”

and on the second point–Moreno argues that public sentiment doesn’t influence innovation or technological change:

“This sentiment is not something that’s going to impair innovation,” Moreno told me. “I don’t think optimism or pessimism has driven technological change—what has driven technological changes are problems. There’s been an itch to scratch, and we’ve made something to scratch it. New technology creates new needs. It’s not obvious now, but you’re going to create new ones once they become integrated.”

Both points have a lot of validity but it’s impossible for me to say categorically that ‘it doesn’t matter’. Public sentiment may be irrelevant but their influence on the mainstream media (who perpetuates ‘worst case scenario’ thinking about technology and change) and more significantly on politicians (who have the power to regulate technologies they don’t understand) can have collateral damage in a number of ways. Sadly, there’s been little concern in the US media about technology law being interpreted and defined by a Supreme Court that doesn’t understand the Internet but it has been covered in the UK media.

THE DOWNSIDE OF TECH FEAR MONGERING:

I’m a big champion of personal ownership and responsibility in every area of life. From that standpoint, it doesn’t matter what other people think about the future of technology or anything else. It is in my best interest to proactively embrace technological change and what polling of the ‘average American’ indicates about their opinions about anything matters little. On the other hand, I like to use my knowledge to help teach and inform those who *want* to know more so from that perspective a myopic view of technology concerns me. There are several other ‘downsides’ of a widespread reticence toward technology and the fear mongering that exacerbates it. Robert Atkinson makes a compelling case in a must read article from Information Week earlier this year entitled ‘Tech Fear Mongering Must Stop‘. Here’s one of Atkinson’s more salient observations:

Today, however, increasingly vocal neo-Luddites in this country argue that progress is a force to be stopped, not encouraged. They want a world in which a worker never loses a job, even when the new technology behind it leads to higher employment; a world in which consumer rights trump all other considerations, even lower prices; a world in which no personal information is shared, even if sharing benefits individuals and companies alike. In short, they want to slow advancement at all costs, even when those costs ultimately hurt the public they’re trying to protect.

We can forgive the average American for believing this narrative, given the many influential advocacy groups, media outlets, and academics that promote this view of the world. “60 Minutes” and the Associated Press have featured stories on the perils of automation, and prominent academics, including MIT’s Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson, are telling us that machines kill jobs, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Numerous media outlets have also taken up the false argument that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous and should be curbed or banned. One example is the “balanced” PBS documentary “Seeds of Death.” And almost all coverage of new information technology comes with the obligatory “this is the end of privacy as we know it” warning.

Rob Preston, Information Week VP and Editor in Chief, discussed the ‘change will happen. Deal with it’ perspective in an article entitled ‘Creative Destruction of Internet Age: Unstoppable‘.

“Software is eating the world,” is how Netscape founder and tech venture capitalist Marc Andreessen puts it. “More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services — from movies to agriculture to national defense,” Andreessen wrote in The Wall Street Journal two years ago. “Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.”

An Australian PhD student named Erin Stark has an interesting take on one reason that fear of technological change exists–outdated concepts on what the Internet is, how it operates, and what it represents:

The crux of the piece is that over the course of the past ten years (what some might call the ‘Web 2.0‘ era), and particular over the past five years since smartphone ownership rates skyrocketed and Internet-enabled mobile devices became the norm, the dichotomies of online/offline and virtual/real have become less meaningful, and certainly less useful, ways of describing the relationship that we, the users, have with the Internet. Not only has the Internet moved rapidly from being the haunt of geeks and researchers to a tool that everyone uses, but really, we’re always online. Having access is something that we take for granted; the trade off of ubiquity is that we’re never really alone, and never really ‘offline’.

She suggests that viewing the Internet in terms of these absolutes (‘online’ or ‘offline’) influences how the mainstream media covers technology and leads them to conclusions that aren’t necessarily borne out in reality such as ‘today’s teenagers are socially inept’:

For some reason, users – especially young ones – are depicted in the mainstream media as possessing a plethora of social ineptitudes as a result of always having their eyes glued to their smartphones. Their only real skills, some would have you believe, are taking selfies and demonstrating nonchalance toward anything that happens in the ‘real’ world. They’re portrayed as so disconnected that they’re more zombie than human, lost causes aimlessly wandering the digital (ahem) streets of cyberspace. Probably on the Information Superhighway. When they’re not too busy surfing the net. And sexting.

SO ANSWER THE QUESTION….DOES IT MATTER?:

In my opinion it does and it doesn’t. What the ‘man on the street’ thinks about the future of technology means little. He may dislike rain, but that won’t change the weather. Same deal with the future of technology and the change it brings about. Public opinion and media coverage of technology matters as little to me personally as their inexplicable interest in the Kardashian family. Unfortunately, fear and ignorance toward technology contributes significantly to societal problems like income inequality, long term unemployment, etc. Power mad politicians are quick to pander to and exploit a ‘fearful’ demographic and typically don’t have a good grasp of technology either. What they do have is the power to pass laws and regulation concerning technology that they don’t understand. This may please a certain constituency but can have serious collateral damage to the country’s ability to innovate and compete in the world economy.

The obvious next question–“What can be done about it?”–is significantly more difficult.

About James Murphy

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