The term “technopanic” is relatively new to the English lexicon. But the concept that the general public is unnerved, frightened or has high anxiety about technological advancements has been around for centuries.
In the 1850s, people thought increasingly widespread access to novels would destroy the brains of young children. 130 years later, people thought portable music-players, Walkmans, were a public safety hazard that would cause traffic accidents and isolate people.
Today, everyone from self-help gurus to the media write about how technology is undermining social order, ruining interpersonal relationships, and making us less human.
Don’t believe the hype. While some of our forebearers feared the novel, today we praise children who read often. Fears about innovation are often amplified by those who profit from sensationalism. Yet everyday people find, time and time again, that innovation improves their lives as they weave new products and services into the fabric of our society.
A recent poll, conducted by Ipsos on behalf of GET Creative, a division of USA Today Network, and the Charles Koch Institute, found 92 percent of respondents said they believe innovation is a big part of American culture and history, and they’re far from technopanicked about it.
More than two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) said they believe technology has improved their generation’s quality of life. Even more respondents said they expect futuristic products to be available in their lifetime.
A strong majority (81 percent) expect they’ll be alive to see package-delivery drones flying to people’s houses. Seventy-one percent expect self-driving vehicles to be commercially available in their lifetime, too.
Many respondents believe even more radical technologies — such as short-trip flying vehicles and underground car transport tunnels — will be available in their lifetime (42 percent and 33 percent, respectively).
Americans are optimistic about these opportunities. Fifty-eight percent of participants said they expect technology overall to continue improving quality of life for the next generation, particularly when it comes to keeping in touch with friends and family (70 percent); providing more choices for entertainment (67 percent) and shopping (65 percent); and enhancing education (63 percent) and their jobs (62 percent).
With 77 percent of respondents agreeing that the United States is one of the world’s leaders in innovation, there’s every reason to believe Americans will continue to invent revolutionary products. And the general public is eager to see what the future looks like.
When asked which areas of future technological change most excite them, survey respondents named innovations in medicine (61 percent), energy (33 percent), transportation (29 percent), personal electronics (27 percent) and education (25 percent).
Why are Americans optimistic? Because even if the gurus are technopanicked, the general public understands innovation is in our culture. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director Andrei Iancu touched on this idea during a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce conference.
“At every turn, through every century since our existence, Americans have defined our history through our willingness to reinvent ourselves while maintaining allegiance to our foundational principles of individual freedom and democracy,” he said. “This has been the path of American history, and this is the path of invention.”
Survey-takers agree, suggesting it’s the American entrepreneurial spirit (90 percent), its education system (87 percent) and our country’s law and regulatory systems (81 percent) that are the top factors contributing to America’s innovation leadership.
Technology makes us safer, smarter, and more connected. Despite reports of panic about the future, this new survey suggests the public is ready and eager to embrace it. If leaders recognize and reflect citizens’ excitement about the future of technology, America will reap the many benefits of future innovation.
Neil Chilson is a senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.
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