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See Inside Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 5

In Defense of Outrage over New Technology

Sometimes the Luddites have a point



Jeffrey Alan Love

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It's human to fear new technology. We instinctively worry about almost anything that is unknown, probably for sound evolutionary reasons. And in the Fear of the Unknown Department, technologies probably top the list.

It's nothing new. In the 1970s microwave ovens were said to leak radiation and cause birth defects. In the 1950s TV was supposed to rot our brains. In the 1930s people worried that radio would be too stimulating for children's excitable minds, harming their school performance. In the 1800s the tractor, on its first appearance in farmers' fields, was thought to be the devil's work.

New technologies now arrive (and depart) faster than ever. We scarcely have the time to adjust to one status quo before it changes again.

No wonder, then, that our fears for the future are also blooming like crazy.

Today we fear the effect of electronics on our children, their brains and their ability to socialize. We know that big companies and the government are collecting our data, and we are afraid for our privacy. We fret that cell phones give us brain cancer. We worry that the country's 82,000 fracking wells, which push natural gas out of underground shale, may create environmental catastrophe.

It's true that our fears often turn out to be needless (tractors were fairly benign instruments of agriculture). Some modern fears may be misplaced, and some may be genuine causes for alarm; we just don't know yet. These topics are controversial precisely because all the research isn't in. Besides, every now and then, the public's fear of an unfamiliar technology is well founded. Thalidomide, a treatment for morning sickness, really did cause birth defects. Cell phone–addled drivers really do kill thousands of people a year. The National Security Agency really was snooping on Americans.

Should we think about giving up, then? Should we call a five-year moratorium on progress while we assess what we're doing? Should we abandon technology for a simpler life?

Well, that's one option. But the surprising thing about reasonable fear is that it can be healthy—when it's channeled into outrage. And just as we have a long tradition of fearing new technologies, we have another long, proud tradition: course correction.

Give us enough time, and we guide ourselves back onto the tracks almost every time.

Sometimes the transgressions are minor: Facebook overreached in a new privacy statement, Verizon began charging customers $2 a month for making online payments, Netflix announced it would spin off its DVD company, the Federal Aviation Administration banned perfectly harmless gadgets like e-book readers. In each case, public outrage forced the transgressors to retreat.

Sometimes the issues that come up are more serious. Once the science is in, we usually manage to phase out what's killing us (thalidomide, trans fats). Eventually we also get around to phasing out what's killing our planet (sulfur emissions, chlorofluorocarbons).

Many people believe that the NSA scandal was a blight on our government's reputation. I agree. But the resulting outrage has been fantastic. We don't know yet what kind of limits will be put on the NSA's actions, although you can bet that its days of entirely unsupervised freedom are over.

Meanwhile the national conversation about privacy triggered a ripple effect. As a result of the NSA revelations, the big tech companies (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and so on) now encrypt all their data to and from your computer. The public is demanding to know exactly what those companies do with our data—and now know to keep a better eye on them to make sure they tell the truth.

Technology will always change us, and it will always frighten us, but we will push back when necessary. Okay, not every time and not always promptly. In general, though, we can count on the beneficial results of outrage, course corrections—and fear.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE
A brief history of outrage: ScientificAmerican.com/may2014/pogue

This article was originally published with the title "Fear the Worst."

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