Society and technophobia

Introduction

Technophobia has been with humanity for a long time. As long as we have had technology, there have been those amongst us who have had a desire to return to a `simpler' way of life. In Phaedrus (360 BCE), even Plato claimed that:

[writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. [2]

During the industrial revolution, a group of workers in a Nottinghamshire textiles factory began a movement that stormed the factories and smashed the mills in an attempt to preserve what they saw as their traditional way of life. This group was named after their leader, Ned Ludd, and they became known as Luddites. Later, in France, another group of people developed a means of resistance to technology that involved throwing wooden shoes (sabots) into machines. This became known as sabotage.

In the modern world, the word `Luddite' is often used to describe "someone who distrusts the innovations of the modern world. They object to what they see as the hubris of science, the attempt to control and manipulate the natural world to make it serve man more efficiently. Progress, to the Luddites, is an empty promise fueled by vainglory and fraught with danger, because scientists and corporate executives tend to be more concerned by profits than potential consequences." [1]

Perhaps the most obvious of the intrusion of technology into our everyday lives is the computer. Computers have been around for about half a century, but have only started their all-pervading march into our homes and lives within the last twenty years or so. So the question that I will attempt to answer here is why do people dislike and distrust technology in general and computers in particular?

Geekism

Although computers have become essential to almost all aspects of modern life, from our entertainment to our medicine, there is still a stigma attached to them, and to those who use and understand them. Computing Science is still very much in its adolescence having only just emerged from a protracted childhood. Throughout that childhood, computer users have always been enthusiasts, people who would devote their time to understanding how the machine worked from the inside out. I believe that this level of devotion tended to scare people. Perhaps they thought it unnatural that people should spend so much time working with machines rather than people? This sort of thought process is not unusual – indeed, it is one that my own sister subscribes to. This image of the classic `computer geek' is one that has stayed with computer and technology enthusiasts throughout the decades and is perhaps one of the major causes of technophobia in some parts of the population.

However, over the past decade or so, as computing has become more and more integrated into society, those associated with them have started to become accepted as `professionals' and as such have started to gain the degree of respect traditionally afforded to people in such positions. A more sinister view of this is that perhaps society is trying to wash its collective hands of the technology that has come to more and more rely on and leave it in the hands of the 'experts' who understand it. If this is the case (and this is almost entirely conjuecture) then I believe that it is a dangerous step for society to take. Rather than abandoning technology to the few, it should be embracing it. Not until technology reaches the state of usability enjoyed by household appliances such as the television, toaster or fridge can it become truly accepted.

Usability of technology

Although usability of computers and technology is covered in depth elsewhere on this site, a brief mention to it should be given here in a social context.
Computers and other new technologies have always been seen as being difficult to use. The classic case being the old joke of 'not being able to program the video'. However, is this reputation deserved?

Well, yes, I believe that it is. That statement should be qualified, so I would argue that all technology is initially difficult to use. This goes from everything from an alarm clock to a television. However, not only are these items intrinsically simple in terms of their function from the user's point of view, but they have been around for a long time and their use has become standardised over the decades. For example, any video recorder will have the same set of basic buttons for playing, stopping, rewinding etc and – crucially – they all operate in the same way and they are all labelled in the same manner (a square to represent the "stop" button, a triangle on its side to represent "play" etc). The same applies to almost any other piece of household equipment.

What is different about the computer is that rather than the specialised functions of other forms of technology, the computer was intrinsically designed to be general purpose. This immediately makes it more complicated (and thus difficult to use) than something like a television. Another difference between computers and other forms of technology is that it is not standardised. Between different computers, there are many differences in user interface. This is most evident between, say, Windows and Linux. However, even on the same computer platform, software vendors do not always standardise the look and feel of their software, leading to confusion on the part of users.

Yet another problem with computer usability is the rate of change of the technology. Mature technology has little need to change rapidly, meaning that people can take time to adapt to how it works. For example, until recently, television standards had not changed in decades. In theory, a television built in the late 1960s could still pick up TV channels today. However, my computer, which is just over three years old is now effectively obsolete. This means that people have to constantly invest in computers to keep them up to date; a process that many people may resent.

Legal wranglings

This sort of rapid change makes it very difficult for the great slow beast known as society to adapt to a world in which technology is everywhere. An example of this is in reaction to the Internet. Despite the fact that this represents an entirely new medium of communication in many different ways, society, business and government are still trying to make it fit into existing models of communication. For example some governments are still trying to enforce existing customs laws to digital media transmitted over the Internet. This is obviously inviable, but it is taking a lot of time to develop new laws to work in the new medium.

Another, more prominent, example is the reaction of the music and film industries, especially in America, to the introduction of new technologies as seen in the ongoing battles between the RIAA and the MPAA against Napster and DeCSS respectively. This site has more information about Napster.

The DcCSS case, in particular, is interesting. The Content Scrambling System (CSS) is a technique used in DVDs to encrypt the content so that it can only be read by authorised players. DeCSS is a program written by a Norweigen teenager that breaks this (very poor) encryption (see an article on Cryptanalysis of Contents Scrambling System. Note: This is a highly technical article). This was done in an attempt to be able to view DVDs on Linux, for which, no authorised player exists (or, indeed, is likely to exist in the forseeable future).

Instead of sitting down and talking with the developer of this program and the Linux community in general, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) panicked and immediately got a court order banning the hacker website 2600.com from hosting the program and banned them from linking to any other site that has it. This case (which has obvious free speech ramifications) is ongoing, with an appeal from the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of 2600.com, supported by several groups of academics from MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon University, among others.

This is clearly a case where the establishment has not been willing or able to handle the implications of the new medium on their business. What they should have done was developed a stronger encryption mechanism and discussed the possibilities of developing a DVD player for alternative platforms, such as Linux. What they did was slap a legally dubious (under the American First Amendment) banning order on to DeCSS and consider the matter closed.

Conclusions

Although I cannot claim that technophobia is caused by any of the individual factors discussed on this site, they cannot help but to contribute to this fear. Taken in combination, these factors strengthen the hold on society of its oldest fear – that which is not understood.

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