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Tech Terror: Human Anxiety in a Computerized World

News & Features | March 3, 2014

Try hard to think about a single aspect of your life that is not touched by a technology invented within your lifetime. You may have purchased the clothes you are currently wearing online, or awoken this morning to the alarm on your cell. Even if you don’t own a smartphone, your credit card information is stored online—along with your address, contact information, and social security number.

For many young, tech-savvy computer users, the presence of our information online doesn’t scare us. Nevertheless, the exponential advance of computers is an intimidating, and sometimes anxiety-inducing, aspect of modern life. And it is more integrated in human interaction than any technology that has preceded it. For those who are uncomfortable adapting to this intimate invention, using the web can be a stressful and exhausting experience.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 40 million Americans have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders. A new and largely unstudied realm of anxieties has evolved concurrently with the inevitable amplification of man’s relationship with technology. Technophobes are becoming more and more uncomfortable as computerized technologies become more integrated in our daily lives. Limiting access to online resources and information, technophobia causes very real disabilities in regards to employment, socialization, and communication. As one might expect, these disabilities disproportionately affect aging and poor populations who are either unwilling or unable to learn about or access new technologies.

The Obamacare rollout has been a striking example of the clear disadvantages faced by those who fear or strongly dislike computers. This public resource is targeted at aging populations, who are uniformly less computer-savvy. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), 62 percent of people over the age of 75 own a computer, compared with 90 percent of Americans in general. Those without access to computers were unable to access the online informational materials necessary to complete registration. Social Security Offices offer in-person services as well as a website that offers many supplementary tools. For instance, there is an application to view bank deposits and submit applications electronically, saving online users time and money by managing their monthly reports from home. It is striking that even this public service specifically targeted at senior citizens utilizes these web tools that can be intimidating for many senior citizens.

The daunting expanse of technology has left technophobes and the tech-averse shaking in their boots, but technophobias have existed long before computers and the Internet. It may surprise readers that certain basic inventions were, at their conception, highly controversial. For instance, home electricity was criticized in its time for corrupting the moral fabric of the home, and was considered by many to be unhealthy.

In the 1950s, as televisions and telephones were becoming standard home appliances, a new class of technophobias arose. A pink rotary phone marketed as a private phone for young women, called the “Princess,” was released by Bell in 1959. It instantly sparked controversy regarding the threat of indecent conversations that young women could be conducting in private, and the many moral and ethical implications of giving teenage girls access to this technology. Within 10 years of the of the phone’s release, private lines were ubiquitous in the bedrooms of teenage girls across America, and the controversy, in retrospect, seems rather silly.

Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist at Intel Labs in California, studies how to ease the tech-averse into the modern world and how to shorten the period of moral panic associated with new inventions. Intel, understanding the monetary loss associated with tech-averse consumers, charged Dr. Bell with researching the ways in which humans have evolved to socialize. These natural tendencies, according to Bell, can be applied to technology to narrow the gap between human-human and human-computer interaction

Dr. Bell is fascinated by a repeating pattern that, she argues, has emerged with each major technological advent of the last few centuries. First, a new technology is invented and becomes widely available (think Princess phone or, more recently, the personal computer). Its release leads to widespread use, which is soon followed by a period of “moral panic” and then, eventually, controversy-free adoption. This phase of moral panic is evident in the myriad health concerns, social critiques, and debates surrounding smartphone use, artificial intelligence, and online data storage security. Frankenstein, the popular novel by Mary Shelley, can be read as a technophobic interpretation of technology overpowering man. And just this year, the film Her, directed by Spike Jonze, portrays a fictional yet all-too-realistic future that examines the complex relationships humans form with their computers. Bell argues this pattern is applicable to contemporary inventions, but she maintains a forward eye towards progress. “I am firmly in the present. But, sometimes, I want to drag the future here and see if we want it.”

While true technophobia is a disability in our ultra-connected world, to what degree is a cautioned attitude towards new technologies and their applications beneficial? Technology has become so engrained in the life of the modern human that it is often difficult to determine when inventions improve or compromise our quality of life.

Electronic medical records (EMR), for instance, were hailed as a streamlining technology that would allow medical professionals to keep better records of patients and store imaging and test results. According to Deborah Rubin, M.D., an Attending Radiation Oncologist and Associate Professor of Radiology at the University of Vermont School of Medicine, EMRs have been detrimental to the quality and efficiency of medical care. Says Dr. Rubin, “Although the EMR has improved access to laboratory reports and imaging reports, it has actually impeded communication between doctors and staff. The language of the program is canned and unnatural so [EMRs] actually impede communication.”

Dr. Rubin also notes that communication between EMR systems at different hospitals is difficult. If a patient at one medical center needs treatment at a separate facility, the programs between hospitals often don’t speak to one another. “The EMR is really designed for lawyers and billing personnel. The whole record is designed to document what you bill for and enhance the capacity to bill. It also protects the doctor from malpractice suits, to be sure you have met your legal requirements and billing requirements. The record ends up reading like nonsense because it’s essentially just a text full of these billing codes.”

Looking towards the future of technology in medical care, Dr. Rubin, like many other senior physicians, is skeptical. “Younger physicians are faster [at EMR data entry], but they have almost completely lost the ability to communicate about the patients. They are clicking boxes and filling in coding phrases, but they are not able to talk about patients in their own words. In 20 years when these residents are attending physicians, you will lose the voice of the doctor and you will lose the voice of the patient. You aren’t able to care for patients as well because you don’t have their own description of their condition.”

Regardless of profession, technology is here to stay. The simple truth is that as we continue to rely on technology to make our lives easier, we are paying with our money, our privacy, and our information. In light of Wikileaks and the Snowden revelations, there is ample justification for skeptics of online privacy and the dehumanizing, data-centric elements of modern computing. Regardless of whether technophobias take the form of a basic incompatibility with computer hardware, or a more complex aversion to human-computer interaction and privacy, these phobias must be addressed as modern society marches ever onward towards a more integrated future. How we prepare for this world that is so dramatically different than today’s is to move forward with one eye towards progress and one eye on what human elements, if any, we are leaving behind.