OPED: Tech is the new scary story — but why?

Jennifer Huddleston Skees
Tribune News Service
A driverless car is on display at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., on Sept. 25, 2012. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

It’s October, which means our televisions and theaters are full of stories of supernatural mayhem. More recently shows like “Black Mirror” and movies like “Ready Player One” portray mayhem wrought not by ghosts and monsters, but by out-of-control technology that feels just plausible enough to incite a different kind of fear.

Even the news stokes worries of new, disruptive technologies: Robots will take our jobs, driverless cars will kills us, and — for those who really want a scare — algorithms in a virtual reality will eventually make our decisions.

But as the great ghost debunker Scooby Doo and his gang might say, let’s see what these fears really are. Some might be nothing more than the figurative sad old man in a mask.

Our fears of new technology, much like our fears of things that go bump in the night, are nothing new. In 1565, a respected scientist warned that people would become overwhelmed with information due to a particularly dangerous new piece of tech: the printing press. Now we know that Johannes Gutenberg’s invention spurred a gigantic leap forward for humanity.

Women were once warned to stay away from dangerous new trains as their bodies were clearly not designed to be subjected to the speed of 50 mph. The introduction of cars and subways brought their own sensational fears.

More recently, the rise of the VCR was alleged by Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti to be “to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Instead, it came to a hugely profitable for the very industry it was supposed to kill.

It’s easy to look back and laugh — but that’s because we’ve already apprehended the alleged “ghost” and exposed it. Still, every time we realize that we have nothing to fear from one technology, like microwaves or electricity, we hear a new noise in the attic and are convinced that this time the monster is real.

Today these fears are rampant in our reactions to new, disruptive technologies like the aforementioned artificial intelligence, robots and driverless cars. No matter how many times the story plays out, we look down the storm drain and see a technological Pennywise luring society to its peril.

Being cautious and thoughtful about the ramifications of a new technology is one thing. After all, not every idea will successfully make consumers’ lives better and safer. But it’s quite another to allow fears of unlikely worst-case scenarios to prevent us from even trying. When we call for policymakers to “do something” about a strange and unfamiliar idea that promises to upset the status quo, we can limit potentially life-saving innovations.

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Take driverless cars, which have the potential to eliminate the human error behind most car accidents. Robots can perform dangerous tasks which currently require humans to risk their lives, like flying over forest fires and collecting nuclear material. AI is already being used to improve cancer detection and develop genetics-based approaches to medication.

In reality, most of our fears are driven by nostalgia, generational differences, and existing industry special interests. As my colleague Adam Thierer points out in a 2013 study, the serious consequences of “technopanics” can include animosity between citizens, distrust of institutions, the disguising of actual risks, and an unhealthy level of control over information and innovations.

Airplanes were once an outlandish pursuit; today they’re the safest way to travel. The Internet was our bogeyman less than a generation ago; today it’s a normal part of everyday life. If we follow the lead of those Scooby and those meddling kids in the Mystery Machine, we’ll see that the dark figure plaguing Elm Street isn’t really Freddie Krueger.

— Jennifer Huddleston Skees is a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s Innovation and Governance Program.