“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” John Cage

Introduction

Statistics show that the overwhelming majority of people are up-to-date with technology, especially in the developed world. The latest iterations - home computers, the internet, mobile phones - are ubiquitous.

Yet there are those who remain resistant to society's reliance on technology.

Rosanna Guadagno, a social psychologist and researcher at the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, said: "In my professional opinion, the current trends in digital communication are alarming and may have a negative long-term impact on human social interaction.”

And according to David Ellis, course director of the Department of Communication Studies at York University-Toronto: “The last year [2018] alone has seen…some 20 trade books arguing that our digital habits are harming individual welfare and tearing up the social fabric.”

What are we to make of this? Is this a usual reaction to new technology?

Is society rejecting digital technology?

“Is Google making us stupid?” asked The Atlantic in 2008. In 2015, the BBC warned: “Are computers making our lives too easy?” Readers of these articles would have read these ideas on an electronic device - how many noted the irony?

And it's not just news outlets making these statements. Calestous Juma, of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, argues that “society tends to reject new technologies when they substitute for, rather than augment, our humanity.

Yet statistics strongly suggest that no such rejection is taking place as regards humanity’s newest toys.

As of 2019, there was a computer in at least half of all homes worldwide. And as of 2019, 96% of Americans owned a mobile device of some kind. Globally - which includes the economically depressed third world - that number is 62%.

Some have even suggested that the adoption of new technologies is actually speeding up. According to The Economist, it took 46 years for electricity to be taken up by a quarter of the US population, 35 years for the telephone, 26 years for the television, and only seven for the internet.

These last numbers should be taken with a grain of salt; already extant infrastructure makes adoption of new technology easier. Yet the reality remains that where digital connectivity is concerned, people are voting with their feet.

Do as I say, not as I do

Yet, a 2018 survey conducted by Pew Research across eleven countries found an interesting piece of data. While a high percentage of respondents considered mobile technology to be good for themselves personally, a much smaller number considered it to be beneficial to society as a whole.

For example, in Mexico, 80% answered that their mobile phones were personally beneficial, but 70% considered the technology bad for society. In Jordan, the difference was even more significant – 82% vs 53%.

Another notable result was found in the same year by the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University. It surveyed technology experts about the effects of digital life, and found that 32% of the 1,150 respondents thought that individual wellbeing will be more harmed than helped by digital life in the next decade.

Valid concerns?

Looking more specifically at the concerns of the Pew Research survey, we see that 62% (median) were concerned about "mobile phone addiction", and 48% were concerned about "losing the ability to communicate face-to-face". Most notably, 79% were very concerned about the effect of mobile devices on their children.

There does seem to be at least some basis to that last worry. BMC Psychiatry reported in 2018 that one in four children/young people demonstrate "problematic" smartphone usage, likening their behaviour to a behavioural addiction. More specifically, the study found that some subjects demonstrated anxiety when their phone was not available, and/or neglected other activites in favour of using it. It also identified a positive link between these behaviours and symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and poor sleep.

Nevertheless, median mobile ownership among respondents in the Pew Research survey was 89%.

Repeating pattern

What can be understood by this juxtaposition of people being worried about the harmful effects of technology and their wholesale acceptance of it into their lives?

Consider this statement, made in 1896 by American physician George Frederick Shrady: "The cause of the...increase in nervous disease in increased demand made by the conditions of modern life upon the brain. Everything is done in a hurry. We talk across a continent, telegraph across an ocean, take a trip to Chicago for an hour's talk…"

It may sound quaint to hear a man complain about the pace of life in a world in which only a minority were reachable by telephone. Yet to him, this was a real issue.

Examples of doomsday predictions abound. Writer R. U. Sirius said of the internet in 1992: "Who's going to control all this technology? The corporations, of course. And will that mean your brain implant is going to come complete with a corporate logo, and 20 percent of the time you're going to be hearing commercials?"

Greg Blonder, Professor of Design and Product Engineering at Boston University, went even further in 1995: “In 2088, our branch on the tree of life will come crashing down, ending a very modest (if critically acclaimed) run on planet earth. The culprit? Not global warming. Not atomic war. Not flesh-eating bacteria. Not even too much television. The culprit is the integrated circuit ... By 2100, the gap will grow to the point at which homo sapiens, relatively speaking, might make a good pet.”

Granted, we haven’t reached 2088 yet. But it is equally true that we have heard all this before. Let us not forget that when coffee first arrived in Europe in the 17th century, the clergy tried to ban it, calling it the “bitter invention of Satan.”

Typical Luddites

Everett Rogers, an eminent sociologist of his time, came up with a model describing the adoption of new technologies by society in his "Diffusion of Innovations" (1962). First there are the innovators, then the early adopters, and finally the early and late majority. But, posited Rogers, 16% of society remain “laggards”.

Regarding computers and mobile technology, we have almost reached full adoption. Are we just hearing the complaints of Luddites?

Not necessarily; there is an additional factor to take into account. It has been noted that even accepted technologies will tend to see their popularity ebb. Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google, said: "Every new technology goes through a phase of euphoria, followed by a phase of retrenchment. Automobiles were a fantastic replacement for horses, but as their numbers increased it became clear that they had their own health and cleanliness issues.”

This is reflected in a comment made by Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford University: “The massive and undeniable benefits of digital life – access to knowledge and culture – have been mostly realized. The harms have begun to come into view just over the past few years…”

The other side

But let’s not forget that there are positive predictions too. John J. Carty, chief engineer at AT&T, said in 1891: "Someday we will build up a world telephone system, making necessary to all peoples the use of a common language or common understanding of languages.... There will be heard throughout the earth a great voice coming out of the ether which will proclaim, 'Peace on earth, good will towards men.’"

So while Bill Gates - who made his fortune developing computers - warns about the dangers of artificial intelligence, we must ask ourselves a question. What technology will the AI generation be warning their children about?

Hope for the future

While it is true that new technologies can be misused, this shouldn't eclipse the good they continue to do. The telephone has connected the world, preserving social bonds that would otherwise be lost by distance.

Studies have shown that access to telephones directly correlates with economic growth. Mobile technology is helping lift people out of poverty; the World Bank found that between 2011 and 2018, financial inclusion (that is, access to a bank account) worldwide jumped from 51 percent to 69 percent, which is largely due to mobile services.

Moreover, telecommunication technology literally saves lives - for example, USAID uses mobile phones as a tool to lower the rate of maternal deaths in Timor-Liste.

Freedom through knowledge

At Knowsome, we are aware that the abundance of information available to you can be counter-productive. That's why we offer a smart personal assistant that filters the noise and provides you with useful knowledge, turning wasted time into an educational opportunity.

When it comes to information technology, Thomas Jefferson put it best in 1786: "The most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness."