An end-of-the-year crystal-ball statement by New York Times technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, stimulated me to muse some more about how Americans think about technological change. Manjoo wrote:
In 2016, let’s begin to appreciate the dominant role technology now plays in shaping the world, and let’s strive to get smarter about how we think about its effects. “The pace of technological change has never been faster, so it’s more important for people to understand things that are harder to keep on top of,” said Julius Genachowski, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. . . .
As I discussed in an earlier post, such claims are perennial. More examples: About 60 years before Manjoo, on April 22, 1957, noted Times journalist C. L. Sulzberger warned:
The dizzy speed with which mechanical techniques are now developing leads many serious thinkers to wonder if they may not soon exceed human capacity to absorb them.
And about 25 years before that, a member of my own tribe, sociology founding father William F. Ogburn, told a panel–as reported in the Times on January 2, 1931–that:
An increasing number of inventions . . . will mean an increasing pace of change and less peace. It will become increasingly difficult for the growing person to adapt himself to an ever more complicated environment; and so in the future, . . . . the problem will be met, perhaps, by prolonging infancy to say, thirty or forty years of age or even longer.
(Parents of 20-somethings may want to comment on the prediction of prolonged infancy.)
The Genachowski-like claims that Americans today are buffeted by unprecedented social change driven by an unprecedented technological pace is, I have argued (here and here), wrong. We may yet face, but do not yet experience, the sort of machine-assisted disruptions that were common a century ago.
Still, all this is about the views of talking (or writing) heads. How have average Americans thought about the pace and dangers of technological change?
I searched for historical survey data on Americans’ views about technological change. Little exists.
A nearly 60-year-old paper on how Americans viewed scientists reported that 47 percent of those polled in 1957 and 1958–when Sulzberger wrote the comment quoted above–agreed with the statement, “One trouble with science is that it makes our way of life change too fast.” A reprise of that question in 1988 by the General Social Survey found a small reduction in anxiety: 41 percent agreed that it was “too fast.”
Surveys (archived at the Roper Center) have asked a different version of this question since 1979: “Science makes our way of life change too fast. Do you strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree?” The figure below shows the trend.
It appears that, proportionally, about as many Americans these days report anxiety concerning technological change as did nearly forty years ago–about half. I cannot explain why survey respondents in the mid-1990s, when personal computing and the web took off, seemed to be less worried than respondents before or since. In any case, we do not see a simple picture of technological concerns; worry has not been accelerating more and more over time.
An interesting study (pdf) on this topic, conducted ammong Californians in the 1970s, found that respondents evaluated a wide range of technologies positively (even television and the early computers), with the one exception of the atomic bomb. More significantly, when asked to discuss the important societal changes happening around them, the respondents more often pointed to social topics, such as the civil rights movement and changing moral codes, than to technological ones.
Americans generally seem less convinced than Farhad Manjoo of “the dominant role technology now plays in shaping the world” and of its ever-accelerating pace. I suspect they are right.