Sunday , January 29 2023

Americans Optimistic About Technological Change But Only In The Abstract

A report from the Pew Research Center received a good deal of media coverage when it was released in mid-April and its results underscore the antithetical mindset about technological change evident among the general public and in government and mainstream media. The report entitled ‘US Views of Technology and the Future‘ sought to measure “public opinion about our rapidly changing world of science and tech”.

The average ‘man on the street’ has a positive view of technology and the changes it will bring about–but only in the abstract. The report found that 59% of Americans think tech developments will make life in the next half-century better, while only 30% said they will make life worse. When they were asked their opinion on technologies viable in the near future, however, their opinion soured. The survey respondents gave a negative reaction to wearable tech, driverless cars, private and commercial use of drones, increased use of robotics and so called ‘designer babies’ (parents altering the DNA of their unborn offspring in hopes to improve mental or physical ability).

Some of this can be explained away as a common occurrence in polling of all types. Respondents will often respond positively to a broadly defined concept (Obamacare, US military policy) but negatively when asked about the individual components of said concept. In this case the results closely mirror the technophobic bias of mainstream media and the status quo protecting proclivities of politicians–technology as a concept is given lip service as ‘good’ but the micro changes brought about by technology are met with derision, contempt, hostility and alarm.


There’s been plenty written about how human beings are genetically hardwired to be resistant to change. At one point it was essential to human survival and provided a warning system against predators, hostile humans and other threats to physical well being. It has been referred to by Seth Godin and others as the ‘lizard brain’. This hardwired desire for stasis might have been a ‘feature not a bug’ for early man but causes all sorts of problems in modern life from depression to anxiety to corporate dysfunction.

This dynamic is at play not only in the public’s apprehension about technological advancement but in countless other situations. For example, if you suggest to your friend that the two of you should drop everything and move to Hawaii there’s a good chance he’ll react positively to the idea. If you start delegating tasks like apartment hunting and utility hookup in Maui there’s a very good chance you’ll encounter a dramatically different reaction ranging from hesitation to a complete rejection of the plan. The higher brain might like the idea of a lifestyle change in the tropics but once it starts to become a reality the ‘lizard brain’ kicks in.

Fear of change manifests itself not only in avoiding uncertainty but in how the eventual outcome of change is perceived. When the outcome of a situation is unknown the human brain has a bias to interpret the ambiguous result as ‘negative’ or ‘bad’. This is not lost on marketers, the media, politicians, religion, etc. which uses this hardwired fear of change to their advantage either by promising stasis and security or manipulating it to sell products, get votes, or to gain an audience. From a tech perspective those of us who understand it can evaluate both positive and negative outcomes but those that get their information on technology from the mainstream media don’t get a balanced perspective and instead get an often completely clueless litany of ‘downside potential’ and worst case scenarios (qv: ‘Digital Anarchy‘)


I talked about the ‘new digital divide‘ yesterday and a quick Google search reveals that the term has become a one size fits all sobriquet for any tech related agenda or pet cause. One of the most compelling definitions of the term is essentially the one advanced in yesterday’s post–the divide between tech savvy and those who are fearful and/or ignorant of technology. Seth Godin was *way* ahead of the curve on this, outlining the growing gap between the ‘digerati’ and the ‘left behind’ back in 2005. While different labels have been applied to respective classes of this technical knowledge gap including ‘Leaders and Laggers‘ and ‘Makers and Consumers‘ the takeaway is the same–there’s a good chunk of the population that is ignorant and/or fearful of technology to their detriment. This ‘tech illiteracy’ makes dealing with day to day life increasingly difficult and eliminates access to employment and educational opportunities. And forget about being able to leverage the tools of technology to build a business or finding new income or market opportunities in an increasingly digital world.

It’s a big problem that will become even bigger and one without an easy fix. It cuts across all demographic boundaries and isn’t a function of inadequate access to broadband and other tech resources (the ‘Digital Divide 1.0). The positive perception of technological change does increase with income and education and is significantly higher for men than women. Interestingly, there wasn’t much difference between various age groups which invalidates the conventional wisdom that ‘old codgers’ don’t like anything ‘new fangled’.

About James Murphy

Writer and creator covering the transformative effect of technology on everything it touches. The revolution will be decentralized.

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