Culture Magazine

Cycles of Technology Panics

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Orben, A. (2020). The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics. Perspectives on Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620919372
Abstract: Widespread concerns about new technologies—whether they be novels, radios, or smartphones—are repeatedly found throughout history. Although tales of past panics are often met with amusement today, current concerns routinely engender large research investments and policy debate. What we learn from studying past technological panics, however, is that these investments are often inefficient and ineffective. What causes technological panics to repeatedly reincarnate? And why does research routinely fail to address them? To answer such questions, I examined the network of political, population, and academic factors driving the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics. In this cycle, psychologists are encouraged to spend time investigating new technologies, and how they affect children and young people, to calm a worried population. Their endeavor, however, is rendered ineffective because of the lack of a theoretical baseline; researchers cannot build on what has been learned researching past technologies of concern. Thus, academic study seemingly restarts for each new technology of interest, which slows down the policy interventions necessary to ensure technologies are benefiting society. In this article, I highlight how the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics stymies psychology’s positive role in steering technologies.
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In 1941, Mary Preston published “Children’s Reactions to Movie Horrors and Radio Crime” in The Journal of Pediatrics. The American pediatrician had studied hundreds of 6- to 16-year-old children and concluded that more than half were severely addicted to radio and movie crime dramas, having given themselves “over to a habit-forming practice very difficult to overcome, no matter how the aftereffects are dreaded” (pp. 147–148). Most strikingly, Preston observed that many children consumed these dramas “much as a chronic alcoholic does drink” (p. 167). Preston therefore voiced severe concerns about the children’s health and future outcomes: Children who consumed more radio crime or movie dramas were more nervous and fearful and suffered from worse general health and more disturbed eating and sleep.
To truly understand these claims, one needs to consider Preston’s work in the context of her time. The decade preceding her work saw both broad social and technological changes; the explosive growth in popularity of the household radio during this period, however, is especially striking. In 1922, 6,000 radios were owned by the American public; this number grew to 1.5 million by 1923, 17 million by 1932, and 44 million by 1940 (Dennis, 1998). In 1936, about nine in 10 New York households owned a household radio, and children in these homes spent between 1 and 3 hr a day listening to these devices (Dennis, 1998). This rapid rise in popularity sparked concerns not limited to Mary Preston’s article. A New York Times piece considered whether listening to the radio too much would harm children and lead to illnesses because the body needed “repose” and could not “be kept up at the jazz rate forever” (Ferrari, as cited in Dennis, 1998). Concerns voiced by the Director of the Child Study Association of America noted how radio was worse than any media that came before because “no locks will keep this intruder out, nor can parents shift their children away from it” (Gruenberg, 1935). This view was mirrored in a parenting magazine published at the time:
Here is a device, whose voice is everywhere. . . . We may question the quality of its offering for our children, we may approve or deplore its entertainments and enchantments; but we are powerless to shut it out . . . it comes into our very homes and captures our children before our very eyes. (Frank, as cited in Dennis, 1998)
In recent decades, concerns about the effects of radio on young people have practically disappeared—but societal concerns about emergent technologies have definitely not done so.
Given the option, many parents of today would enthusiastically welcome the consumption of radio dramas, especially if they would take the place of their children playing around on their phones or chatting to friends on social media. Just as was the case with the radio, academic publications and other reports now routinely liken these new digital pursuits to drug use (Royal Society of Public Health, 2017; see commentary, Przybylski & Orben, 2017). They once again raise the specter of vast proportions of the adolescent population becoming addicted to a new technology (Murali & George, 2007) and that this will have diverse and far-reaching negative consequences (Greenfield, 2014; see commentary, Bell, Bishop, & Przybylski, 2015). Although previous parents’ fears of radio addiction might seem amusing now, contemporary concerns about smartphones, online games, and social media are shaping and influencing policy around the world (Choi, Cho, Lee, Kim, & Park, 2018; Davies, Atherton, Calderwood, & McBride, 2019; Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport & Secretary of State for the Home Department, 2019; House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, 2019; Viner, Davie, & Firth, 2019; Wait Until 8th, 2018). These technology panics—times in which the general population is gripped by intense worry and concern about a certain technology—are influential and reoccurring. Current worries about new technologies are surprisingly similar to concerns about technologies that have preoccupied parents and policymakers in the past but are met with amusement today.
The similarity between concerns about the radio and social media provides a striking reminder that in every decade, new technologies enter human lives and that in their wake there will arrive widespread concerns about their effects on the most vulnerable in society. Technological advances and the concerns they engender form part of a constant cycle. Nearly identical questions are raised about any new technology that reaches the spotlight of scientific and public attention. These are then addressed by scientists, public commentators, and policymakers until a newer form of technology inspires the cycle of concern to restart. Understanding how these different spheres of academia, policy, and the public interplay is crucial to understanding how the reaction to new technologies might be improved.
In this article, I argue that people’s reactions to new technologies, and researchers’ approaches to studying them, are best understood through the lens of a comprehensive framework I have named the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics. The framework highlights the diverse actors that interact to cause technology panics to develop in repeated and almost identical cycles and outlines the consequences this has for academic and policy progress. In this article, I first examine technology panics of the past century and then move on to discuss why technology panics routinely evoke concern. I then discuss the role of politics and academia in addressing and magnifying these widespread worries, critically reflecting on the positive and negative influence of the psychological sciences. Finally, I look ahead and touch on what can be done by researchers to ameliorate or address the negative effects of this cycle of technological panics in the face of an increasingly accelerating technological revolution.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

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