Why We Fear New Technologies At First

As society became increasingly aware of the printing press in the early 15th century, some saw opportunity while others saw it as the work of the devil and decried it for taking away peoples jobs. The Catholic church was largely neutral, but some Popes and senior clergy weren’t overly happy. Some censorship measures were put in place. Many thought it would be a minor technology at most.

As the image below shows, there was similar reaction to the rise of the internet. And this article was from 2000, just as the .com boom was about to go bust.

As social media becoming increasingly popular nearly a decade later, it was heralded as a technology that would spread democracy and connect cultures in wonderful ways. We went from rejection of the internet to over-exuberance at a technology’s potential.

Societies tend to fear revolutionary technologies, then to overstate their potential once the fear phase is over. Why? Why is this even important to understand? How do we move forward?

The common threads, or warp and woof if you will, that holds all sociocultural systems together around the world, are norms, behaviours, traditions and customs. How they are used varies by society and culture. They play a key role in technology adoption, influencing politics, governance, social structures, the arts and more.

Societies and their cultures are always changing. Evolving. New generations and contact with other cultures has impacted human societies for many thousands of years. And since technology plays a vital role in our survival, new ones can sometimes cause frictions.

Fearing new technologies, especially ones where we perceive them as having a potentially existential threat to our culture and social fabric, is a survival mechanism.

Perhaps the most recent example of this would be Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), while there are always those who see a technology through rose coloured glasses, larger society tends to see it as a threat. It was a 5 alarm fire when it came to fearing A.I. very quickly.

In rather short order however, we have shifted more towards realising that A.I., especially the Generative A.I. tools like ChatGPT, may not be all they’re cracked up to be. Normally, reaching this phase of a society’s view of technology would take a few years at least.

This time it only took a few months. This is a result of the hyper-connected world we live in, where trends and ideas are debated in a global public square. This is both good and bad. The downside is that in a global market, it can impact economic systems in a way that causes greater uncertainty, hurting economies.

It also makes it harder for governments to keep abreast of critical changes to enact regulation in a smart way that isn’t over-reaction and that might stifle innovation.

The upside is that we are likely to absorb new technologies much faster than ever before and we are likely to develop frameworks and methodologies to better absorb and adapt technologies to our societies and cultures.

We fear them at first because they mean change. We know that change is the only constant in life, our societies and cultures. That doesn’t mean we have to like it. Think of how we grow up. We eventually reach that phase when we become more aware of the world around us, our childhood dreams and silliness becomes lost. We try to resist. It is futile.

Before our world became as connected as it is today, our societies and cultures had the time and the space between each other and the evolution of technologies, to figure out how we wanted to adopt and then adapt a technology to our particular culture. This is no longer the case.

Big sociocultural systems that include big bureaucracies (a cultural construct), a nation or region of nations, can take a long time to change. Digital technologies today are like a speedboat running circles around a giant cargo ship (sociocultural systems) and the cargo ship takes a long time to change course. It is afraid of being rammed by the speedboat which it fears may be packed with explosives.

Such fears have, in the past, helped us to be more aware of the dangers and risks, although not always. By using fear together with norms, behaviours, traditions and customs, we figured things out.

So how do we move forward to adopt and adapt technologies in such a fast-paced world?

We will have to develop new mental models to help us navigate the changes ahead. Frameworks to assess and prepare for unintended consequences and agile governance mechanisms that can help large bureaucratic systems in both business and government.

Digital technologies offer us an amazing opportunity to move humanity forward, to fight climate change, explore space and our oceans, to build sustainable societies. Humans are incredible at adaptation. For the first time, we are faced with adaptation not at a small scale, but at a global scale.

Embracing the aspects of fear which can help us will be a sociocultural evolution in and of itself. We just have to figure it out at scale.


Popular posts from this blog

Mastering the Information Avalanche: Your Roadmap to Conquer Digital Overload

Navigating the Investment Landscape with Canvas Investment Partners

HEB Community Investment: Nurturing Communities for a Brighter Tomorrow