Friday , January 21 2022

Tech Fear Mongering Is Nothing New

One of the sharper tech thinkers in the world is Dr. Genevieve Bell who is the director of Interaction and Experience Research at Intel. She also writes and speaks extensively on technology and it’s impact on the future and perhaps the best thing about her work is her effective refutation of any number of ‘conventional wisdoms’ particularly as it concerns use and adoption. One of her most interesting and widely quoted concepts is her take on why some technologies cause ‘moral panic’ while others don’t. In her view, this ‘outrage’ is nothing new and isn’t going anywhere. She outlined this in a 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Tech Europe’ blog:
According to Genevieve Bell, the director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, we have had moral panic over new technology for pretty well as long as we have had technology. It is one of the constants in our culture.

“I like the fact that moral panic is remarkably stable and it is always played out in the bodies of children and women,” she said.

It’s something of a relief to know that ‘moral panic’ has been repeated throughout history and that concern for the good of ‘the children’ among the otherwise argumentally bankrupt is nothing new. Based on her research technologies that elicit ‘moral panic’ share three characteristics: they change our our relationship to time. They change our relationship to space. Most significantly, they also have to change our relationship to one another. New technologies that meet these three criteria are the ones likely to be met with alarm while those that don’t are seen as more innocuous. She explains further and provides some examples:

“Think about it,” she says “Electricity? Changed our relationship to time, and changed our relationship to space, because not only could we make big spaces but we could light them up. It rearranged the cityscape completely. And it totally changed our relationships to other people in all sorts of ways, whether it was because you could suddenly cook for yourself so you didn’t need servants.

“Cars? Clearly the same. Television? Absolutely. The Internet? Yes. Mobile phones? Yes. Fountain pens? Not so much. They may have changed our relationships to other people, but they didn’t really change our relationships to time and space.”


Think that the frequency of ‘moral panic’ and tech fear mongering will decline as technology becomes more ubiquitous? Guess again:

The problem, says Ms. Bell, is that cultures change far slower than technologies do. And because the rate of technological innovation is increasing, so too is the rate of moral panic.

When a new technology comes in, society has to establish norms about how to handle it. That is a long and slow process. She cites the mobile phone. Almost as soon as they became ubiquitous, there started a commentary against them, she said.

There is a flip side to this panic–in an interview with the University of Toronto Business School magazine she suggests that at some point use of a technology becomes ‘mandatory’:

There’s also something interesting about the fact that once something like electricity or the Internet comes along, people ‘have to have it’ – and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t. Think about the way we talk about people being connected; there’s a sort of ‘connectivity imperative’ at this point: if you’re not online and connected, we don’t know how to account for you; there’s no word to talk about someone who is not an Internet user except that they are a ‘non-user’. We don’t know what they’re doing instead – we can only document them by the thing they’re not doing.


Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson referred to Bell’s ‘moral panic’ theory in a 2012 op-ed detailing just how far back the hysteria goes:

This cycle is very old. Indeed, it probably began almost 2,500 years ago, when the written word was on its way to unmooring knowledge from space and time and letting new combinations of people “speak” to one another. This satisfied all three rules—and it panicked Socrates, who warned that writing would destroy human memory and destroy the art of argument.

Socrates hadn’t seen anything yet, because the past 100 years or so have been a nearly nonstop spree of innovation and panic. Consider the telephone, which suddenly enabled us to talk across great spaces and at nearly any time to almost anyone. In a precursor to today’s social-media scares, pundits predicted it would kill face-to-face socializing. Mark Twain mocked the presumed triviality and disjointedness of telephonic conversation between women. (Oh, and about women: As Bell notes, you can reliably spot a moral panic when critics start muttering about the impact on ladies and delicate youth.)

But technologies that didn’t change all three things went mostly unprotested. The fax machine? It changed space and time, sure, but not social relations—so not many people lost their marbles over it, as Bell notes. I think the same explains the reaction to Square today.

Thompson hits the nail on the head and hits it hard with this assessment of tech fear mongering (emphasis added):

Now, this is not to say the panics are always misguided. Centralized social networking really does create privacy problems; cyberpredation does occur, if rarely. But the bigger problem with panic-mongers is their insistence that each technological past was a golden age of civility and contemplation, when it was no such thing. And hilariously, many now rhapsodize nostalgically over tools that themselves were once demonized—as with modern complaints that the interwebs are killing that emotionally vibrant interaction, the telephone call.

A bigger problem in my view–there too many media sources that focus on only the potential downsides and ‘worst case scenarios’ of technological change serving to foment this type of panic. There’s also too many politicians who regulate new technologies in response to ‘moral panic’ without a good grasp of ‘the big picture’ or in the case of the Google Glass backlash before the product is even released. Tech fear mongering is commonplace and probably isn’t going anywhere.

Here’s some more Genevieve Bell articles and interviews:

Why People Really Love Technology (The Atlantic)

10 Visions of the Future (Pocketlint)

Intel’s Sharp Eyed Social Scientist (New York Times)

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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