As bicycles became more and more popular in the 1890s, many people realized the damage this relatively new transportation technology could do to society. Some have tried to link cycling with increasing madness, especially among women. Doctors also wrote about the so-called “bicycle face” characterized by dark shadows under the eyes and a tired expression and warn cyclists that the activity is dangerous to their health. It’s hard to imagine anyone working on a bicycle these days, but people are still against technological advances.
Think about some of the things we worry about right now – robots occupying our jobs, EMP attacks stopping society, 5G networks secretly harming us, which become a trend that has been around for centuries. However, the fear of new technology goes beyond technology itself and challenges our sense of stability and cultural norms.
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When did it start?
For centuries, people have been afraid of everything from forks to printing presses. We got a name for such people in the 19th century when an organization of British factory workers known as the Luddites began dismantling textile machinery in protest. Crazy people themselves are not very anti-technology, but the name remains an insult, short for backward people who are afraid of technological advances. This fear is a normal, ingrained reaction in humans. “We have a strong relationship with fear that is unusual, not normal,” said Ed Day, a sociologist at Chapman University in Orange, California.
Take driving, for instance. Although more than 36,000 people died in accidents in the United States last year, driving remains an essential means of transportation for many Americans. Statistically, that doesn’t stop most people from getting behind the wheel.
When new technology breaks your usual norms and threatens to question them, it can create fear that you are no longer in control of your situation.
How scared are we?
For the past six years, Day has conducted the American Fear Study at Chapman University, collecting data on what people in the United States fear the most, from clowns to climate change. In 2015, three of the top five concerns reported by participants were cyber terrorism, tracking government data, and tracking corporate data. Overall, the study found that technology-related anxiety was the second most important category in a random sample of 1,541 adults.
Fear is increasing
Day and colleagues note another trend: Americans check for more fear every time they take a survey. While tech-related fears might get lower in the rankings in 2019, they haven’t completely disappeared. “Not because people are less afraid of technology, but because they are more afraid of other things,” said Day.
In Chapman’s 2019 study, countrywide or global disasters such as water pollution and global warming have escalated to the top. The government fears have also risen to the top since the Trump administration took office in 2016.
Ironically, technology itself can also raise anxiety, says Day. Cell phones and computers give us constant access to an increasingly digital world and seemingly endless information available to you. The threats we feel from the information we ingest – both real and perceived – can affect our mental health. “We see these things that we fear, although they are doubtful, and they can affect our lives more than the things we have to deal with today,” said Day