Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Fears and feelings: Why are people so anxious about technology? 9 possible reasons

Gary Turk's "Look Up" viral video showed us 2 useful, concrete things last week:
  • There is widespread anxiety about the role of technology in society
  • Videos go viral because of feelings, not rational thinking
For example, the line "There's no skipping, no hopskotch, no church and steeple" makes no literal sense at all. Is Turk really blaming iPhones for a decline in hopskotch? Has Facebook been physically removing steeples from towns across the UK? Of course not.

It conjures up an image of traditional life and an older, simpler time.

It's fluffy and heartwarming, so you FEEL you are being shown something "inspirational". By the time your thinking brain has caught up, he's moved onto the next fluffy sentimental line.

The poem is not about showing people how the world IS, but how they fear it is, and how they feel it ought to be.
"People like to be told what they already know.  Remember that.  They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things.  New things…well, new things aren't what they expect.  They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man.  That is what dogs do.  They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that.  In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds."
The Patrician, Lord Vetinari [THE TRUTH by Terry Pratchett]
Of course it's not all fluffy and nice. Like a religious preacher with a congregation, Turk paints a picture of a hell that doesn't exist ("A world where we're slaves to the technology we mastered"), so he can instruct you on the only way to save your soul ("Shut down that display ... live life the real way").

And to think people call me "negative" for deconstructing this claptrap.

9 possible reasons people are anxious about technology

So, I wondered about the wider picture, the reasons this video tapped a nerve on social media. Why are people so anxious about technology? Even, or especially, those actually using it?

Well, here we go...

1. More older people joining social media

10 years ago "social media" was teenagers finding new bands on Myspace.
Things have changed a lot since then.

A huge number of middle-aged and older people have been 1) buying smartphones and 2) taking up Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Not only are older people more familiar with Facebook, they're more familiar with communicating online in general.

But older people have also brought older values with them, which is why we're more likely to see memes on social media about "when I was a kid" and the past being a better, simpler place.

2. Not-so-young people have grown jaded with the internet

At the same time as old people joining the web, teenagers from the 90s are now older, more cynical and more cautious about the internet. People my age (30) have spent roughly half their life texting on phones, and about the same communicating on the internet.

While "Look Up" and similar videos appeal to the older generation's sense of tradition (young people these days!) and teenagers' sense of drama (this thing is the worst thing ever!), the 25-35 audience hold a huge chunk of people who love using their phones yet feel guilty about it.

In fact "guilt" was a word that featured in "Look Up" and cropped up frequently in the Twitter and Youtube comments around it.

"The Pace
Of Modern
Life", from
the illustrious
3. People have short memories of the past...

Everyone loves something to blame, and modern technology has always been a great scapegoat. Today's panic is over smartphones and tablets, but people easily forget the panics over cellphones, computer games and television which have been going on for decades - or much longer, as XKCD points out in "The Pace Of Modern Life".

Gary Turk can't be very old, because he thinks commuting was a bunch of flamingos vomitting rainbows before smartphones:
"I can't stand to hear the silence of a busy commuter train, When no one want's to talk for the fear of looking insane"
Sorry Gary, that's not technology or Facebook, that's city living, and always has been. (Britain is also especially good at public social detachment.) Check out the above photo from Stanley Kubrick's series on Chicago trams in the 1940s. Looks like a barrel of laughs!

4. ...and are short-sighted about the future

Andy Boxall points out that smartphones are still new, and we're still getting used to them. The fact is all new technology takes a while to settle in - after which, moral panics die down, or at least move on.

For example, "Look Up"'s actual title is specifically around tablets and mobile phones, which have become widespread only recently. In five years' time, the moral panic will be about Google Glass, which will allow you be look up and still be distracted by funny cat videos. (Maybe we'll have moved on in 5 years to funny sloth videos. We can only hope.)

In ten, twenty, thirty years, "Look Up" will look like a joke - a moral panic trapped in amber, like an angry, confused, mosquito.

5. Limited knowledge of what technology is already doing

More emoticons? But these are all I need!
One hilarious irony in "Look Up" is about "going outside". You'd think it's still 1998 and "social media" means being chained to a desktop PC chatting on MSN. LOL! (K)

Even people on their mobile smartphones have been parroting the phrase "Go outside! Go outside!", as if completely unaware that mobile technology has moved on and actually - does - let us - go - outside.

"Look Up" and the reactions on Twitter illustrate a strong lack of understanding of the varied ways technology is already being used to help people interact, communicate, create and inspire, including meet-up groups, fundraising sites, online dating, MMORPGs, home recording, live streaming, digital art software and websites, social networks, print on demand, and far far more.

6. Poor imagination of how technology and society will change

Take handwriting. There is a growing moral panic about handwriting "dying out", due to texting and typing on electronic devices like phones and computers. Consider it one of my tips for the next 5-20 years.

Of course, formats never die - the chance of handwriting "dying out" in the near or even mid future is near zero. And if it did disappear, it would only be because a better version of written communication had slowly replaced it. Most probably, writing will continue alongside typed and swiped input methods, and the two will even merge in interesting ways we haven't seen yet.

But fear trumps excitement and hope any day. There is an attachment to traditional habits and technologies such as handwriting; an assumption they are superior to new methods of doing the same thing; an exaggerated fear of them being under threat; and misplaced ideas of where such threats come from.

7. Inflexible views of what being human is

Deep at the heart of this unconscious, emotional mess are questions of what is "real" and what is "human".

The unspoken thread connecting "Look Up", "I Forgot My Phone" and the anti-phone mooing on Twitter is that communicating online is less "real" than communicating face to face. That somehow, the "true" nature of humans goes back to cavemen or Bronze Age goat herders, probably talking around a fire.

This fear will probably remain strong indefinitely, despite the continual trend of communication technology becoming more transparent, more intuitive and more natural.

Despite widespread consumer technology in Western/rich societies, we still have a strong emotional attachment to our condition as basic animals.

8. A sense of "payback"?

This is more just a hunch, but hear me out. What if people feel today's advanced technology is an awesome power/treasure/reward with no obvious cost, and thus entails some kind of inevitable spiritual payback?

It doesn't make logical sense, but as mentioned, this is people and feelings we're talking about. It doesn't have to make sense. Again, the concept of guilt is highly relevant here.

It wouldn't surprise me if many people can't accept, emotionally and subconsciously, widespread technological advancement as simply a neutral tool developed by mankind.

(The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism, anyone? Anyone?)

9. Legitimate concerns and negative issues

There really are many negative issues around widespread consumer technology, and it's so new, we're only just catching up with possible effects:
  • Damaged eyes - Many people spend way too much time staring at screens, and it's unhealthy. Eyesight is arguably a health timebomb waiting to happen. Consider it another tip for 5-20 years.
  • Disrupted sleep patterns - Too much screen time, especially close to bed time, has a negative effect on sleep - which then has a further negative effect on all kinds of health aspects, including healing time, stress, concentration, sight and hearing, exhaustion, and more.
  • Energy dependence - Until we charge devices by the sun and movement, increasing use of smartphones and computers will continue to put a huge strain on dirty energy resources.
  • Germy germy germs - Devices like smartphones are just as dirty as computer keyboards, i.e. sometimes dirtier than a toilet seat. Most people clean their toilets. A few clean their phones.
  • Posture, aches and pains, stress and more - If you use your device or machine too much, the health problems mount up. That's been obvious to workplaces with desktop computers for years, but we're only just seeing the phsyical effects of constant smartphone use.
Too bad "Look Up" didn't mention any of these things.

Instead, it forced a false, over-simplistic, scaremongering, traditionalist message around "detachment" and "living like robots" - a message which for several or all of the above reasons, preyed on fears and feelings rather than appealed to reason.

Here's to sober, informed debate about our use of technology, with open eyes and clear minds.


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