“This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information, and that’s threatening because human existence is finite,” a computer installer tells Don Draper in the hit television drama “Mad Men,” which is set in the 1960s and 1970.
“But isn’t it godlike that we’ve mastered the infinite?” the installer asks.
People haunted by similar fears today, known as technophobes, are more likely to face anxiety-related mental health issues and a fear of losing their jobs, according to a Baylor University sociology researcher.
“What that tells me is that these people don’t think technology will necessarily translate into economic success or financial security,” said Paul McClure, a Baylor doctoral student.
In a survey, 1,541 respondents were asked about fears of cyberterrorism, robots replacing the workforce, public speaking, unemployment, artificial intelligence and more.
People afraid of emerging technologies also feared losing their jobs, McClure found.
The concept is nothing new. In the early 19th century, English textile workers and weavers destroyed machines they thought were used by employers in improper labor practices. They were dubbed Luddites, after Ned Ludd, a figure who smashed knitting machinery in a fit of rage, according to folklore.
That sentiment hit the mainstream in 1996, McClure said, when a chess-playing IBM computer called Deep Blue beat world champion Garry Kasparov in one game of a best-of-six-game match. The following year, the computer squarely beat Kasparov in a full match.
People still grapple with how to best use computers and similar technologies, McClure said. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs helped make the computer desirable, he said.
“The computer used to be a symbol of corporate hierarchy and bureaucracy and the sterile, cold business world,” McClure said. “And (Jobs), along with others, made it something that was a symbol of personal freedom and self-expression. It’s their attempt to break out of the iron cage.”
More than a third of the survey respondents reported being afraid or very afraid of robots in the workforce, decision-making robots, technology they don’t understand, artificial intelligence or people trusting artificial intelligence to do work, thus fitting the definition of technophobe.
People who fit that definition were three times more likely to fear unemployment and almost three times more likely to fear not having enough money.
Students should recognize that jobs will continue to be created as the technology revolution unfolds, but those job titles remain unknown, Baylor information systems professor Tim Kayworth said.
“I think, to a lot of people, this change is particularly troubling because it is so profound and so disruptive,” Kayworth said. “And these things are happening. I think there’s just a higher degree of angst about, ‘What’s going to happen to my job?’ ”
The average technophobe is female, around 52 years old and has less education than a college degree. More than half of the technophobes in McClure’s survey are married, live in a metropolitan area and identify as politically conservative, McClure said.
The group is also more fearful of technology than of public speaking, romantic rejection and police brutality, the study found. A 2015 study found death ranked far below robots replacing the workforce on a list of things people fear.
Citing the book “The Laws of Disruption,” by Larry Downes, Kayworth said the fear is so intense because technology now advances faster than legal, political, social and economic institutions.
He said, for example, pizza delivery by drone forces the Federal Aviation Administration to decide how best to regulate it. Determining the ethics of 3-D bioprinting of tissues and organs will also remain a “constant battle.”
“As a society, we’re not able to make laws fast enough to really keep up with the pace of change, and that creates conflict,” Kayworth said. “(McClure’s study) is an example of the law of disruption.”
Kayworth said the internet revolution in the late 1990s was tangible, and most people were aware of it, unlike many more-modern advances.
“What’s going on now, with machine-learning artificial intelligence, it’s been a little more subtle, and as much or even more so disruptive,” he said. “That, to me, is kind of intriguing.”
Technophobes have 95 percent greater odds of not being able to stop or control worrying when compared to others, McClure found, and 76 percent greater odds of feeling as if something awful might happen.
A 2013 Oxford study estimates 47 percent of American jobs, spanning the blue- and white-collar divide, could become obsolete within two decades, McClure said.
“Whether or not these jobs are lost due to technology, the fear of it is real and has social implications for how people respond,” McClure said.