When new technology causes panic

Christopher Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He has spent years studying how technology affects people – especially children – and is co-author of the book Mortal Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong.

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Christopher Ferguson. Photo: Stetson University

Why are we so afraid of new technology?

“When a new technology is introduced, it often leads to a strong reaction from society. Many of the worries we have today about smartphones are the same ones that concerned people centuries ago when the telephone was introduced. And a couple of hundred years ago we were afraid that people would stay indoors all day if they started reading fiction novels. We trot out the same arguments over and over again.”

Chris uses the word “technopanics” to describe people who are afraid of new technology.

“Their worries are largely based on a desire to protect groups in the risk zone. Historically, this has meant women and minorities. It was said that women shouldn’t be allowed to read books because they were thought to find it hard to differentiate between fantasy and the real world.”

In his research, Chris has come across more than a few extreme opinions claiming that smartphones are disturbing the younger generations and leading to suicide. He thinks this calls to mind the moral panic surrounding hard rock in the 1980s. People are afraid of what they don’t understand.

“As we become older, we find it increasingly difficult to keep track of what’s happening in the world around us. What we don’t understand can be scary, and technological development is moving so fast today. It’s only when you understand something that you can become more accepting.”

According to Christopher Ferguson, it is a matter of putting things in perspective.

“Today, we can laugh about what our parents were afraid of, because their reactions were often ridiculous – but we react in exactly the same way to new things that we don’t understand.”

Artificial intelligence, automation and driverless cars are technologies that challenge several industries with their efficiency improvements. Just like the Luddites in the 1800s, a lot of people today are worried about how new technologies are going to affect their jobs.

“There are numerous challenges, but the problem isn’t that new technology is appearing; it’s that we’re not putting enough effort into re-educating ourselves. We have a tendency to focus on what’s new and exciting, rather than looking after the people who are left behind.” 

The problem isn’t that new technology is appearing; it’s that we’re not putting enough effort into re-educating ourselves.

Chris thinks we have extremely high expectations on new technology, and he says that we have to accept that accidents will happen.

“Even if driverless cars result in 90 percent fewer accidents, people will still be upset about the remaining ten percent. We’ve become used to aircraft that more or less fly themselves, but we don’t give this a second thought because we know there are pilots in the cockpit. We like to think that we’re in control.”

Chris Fergusson thinks that exposure and education make people more comfortable. This helps make new technology less scary and lets people see its positive effects instead.

Fear of technology through the ages

Join us on a journey through innovations and phenomena that sparked fear among people – from the ancient Greeks to today.

260 BC – Written language

As early as in the age of Socrates, people were worried about what the written word would lead to. The famous Greek philosopher thought that writing separated information from its source: the person speaking. As he saw it, writing would adversely affect people’s memories so they would end up forgetting what they wanted to say.

The 1790s – Fiction novels

As fiction became more popular with novels aimed at a younger target group, parents were concerned that their children would start reading incessantly. This could result in them starting to ignore their chores around the home.

1811 – Looms

The Luddites were members of a workers’ movement from Nottingham. They were textile workers who destroyed machine powered looms in protest. They were afraid that their skills and craft would be lost if the machines took away their jobs. The Luddites were not opposed to the technology itself, but they were against any technology that showed no consideration for people. The movement was met with harsh measures in the form of repressive laws, executions and deportations.

The 1870s – The telephone

The first telephone in Sweden was displayed in Stockholm in 1877, but it took a while for people to adopt the new technology. Many people – especially among the older generations – were skeptical, as they were afraid that telephones would give them electric shocks. At that time, there were also incidences of farmers and landowners sabotaging phone lines to prevent them from being run across their fields, and a number of priests compared the telephone to the Devil’s tools. 

The 1920s – Crosswords

“Crosswords enslaving America” trumpeted a headline in the Tamworth Herald in 1924. Things had finally gone too far. What was once a quick pastime had taken the entire country by storm. Wherever you went, at any time of day or night, people were solving crossword puzzles – even in church! Instead of talking to each other and working efficiently, people sat glued to their crosswords.

The 1960s – The television

Many of us have heard the tongue-in-cheek saying that watching too much TV would make us square-eyed. This particular fear can be traced back to 1967 when General Electric delivered a faulty model that emitted dangerous X-rays. This led them to publish a warning not to sit too close to the TV. General Electric then recalled 90,000 televisions and the problem was fixed – but the fear lived on. 

1996 – Clones

“The world’s most famous sheep” came from Scotland and was the first mammal born after being cloned from a cell from an adult animal. Of 277 attempts, Dolly was the only sheep to survive to adulthood. When the news reached the physicist Richard Seed, he promised that within 28 months he would be the first person to clone a human being. And that’s not all – he would clone himself. It never happened, but Dolly launched a stream of debates and concerns about cloning.

2018 – Driverless cars

In March 2018, a fatal accident involving a driverless car occurred in Tempe, Arizona. A human test driver was at the wheel, but the car still collided with a 49-year-old woman as she crossed the street. Video material shows that the test driver was distracted and had taken his eyes off the road. The car should have noticed the woman, but didn’t. Following the accident, Uber chose to shelve its project in several cities.