Fear of technology: It may be the phobia of the '90s

May 09, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- A lot of folks would just as soon stay behind as America charges full speed into the electronic information age.

Surveys show that substantial minorities of people are still uncomfortable with VCRs, answering machines, compact disc players and even digital alarm clocks -- not to mention home computers.

The thought of trying to send mail, consult an encyclopedia, order a movie or chat with strangers over a computer network leaves them scared, hostile or indifferent.

"People are afraid they'll break something," said Kristina Dowell of Richmond. "Computers are like dogs -- they know when you're scared of them."

"Fear of technology may well be the phobia of the '90s," the Dell Computer Corp. of Austin, Texas, reported after polling 1,000 adults and 500 teen-agers last fall.

More than half of all Americans are technophobic to some degree, the Dell survey found. About one-fourth of all adults have never programmed a VCR or set the buttons on their car radio. One-fourth mourned the passing of the typewriter.

"Technophobia is a sign of our times," according to Dan Gookin, author of a series of computer books with titles such as "Windows for Dummies."

"Technology has simply passed many people by," he said.

Some authorities believe the steepest barriers to the national information highway are not technological but sociological. The real problem may be finding enough people willing to pay money and learn the skills to use the whizzy new electronic services that Vice President Al Gore and his allies in the communications industry are touting.

There is no law requiring computer skills and no social stigma attached to people unable or unwilling to travel the information highway. But bystanders will increasingly find themselves at an economic and cultural disadvantage as the digital revolution sweeps through work and entertainment.

Technophobia is especially acute among older people, women and the poor.

In a survey of 1,000 adults for the New York Telephone Co., only 22 percent of the respondents over the age of 65 said they would pay $5 to $15 a month for new electronic services, such as movies on demand, home shopping or picture phones. But 64 percent of the men under 45 thought such services would be worth the cost.

"Older folks are not interested in fancy new technology. They don't see the need for it and are unwilling to experiment," said David Roddy, vice president of Economics and Technology Inc., which conducted the New York survey earlier this year. "They're afraid that, 'I'm going to make a mistake and everybody will laugh at me.' "

Michael Schneider, a computer science professor at MacAlester College in St. Paul, Minn., said his students have no problem getting onto the Internet -- the precursor of the information highway -- but many of his faculty colleagues are embarrassed by their inability to master the complexities of electronic mail.

"It's hard for a senior scientist to admit he knows less than the kids," Mr. Schneider said. "You are used to being looked up to as a model of intelligence, a scholar and a genius. Suddenly you realize some 17-year-old knows 20 times more than you do and thinks you're stupid. It's humiliating."

Butler Franklin, a retired Air Force officer in Bethesda, forced himself to go back to school and learn about computers. "You have to be willing to sit quietly facing a teacher much younger than you and students much quicker than you," he said. "I'm very glad I did."

In addition, female distaste for computers is well documented.

About 55 percent of the women in the Dell poll admitted technophobia, compared with 45 percent of the men. Results were similar in theNew York Telephone Co. survey.

Jo Sanders, director of the Gender Equity Program at the City University of New York, said little girls enjoy computer games but, at about the age of puberty, "girls figure out that computers are 'a guy thing' -- like football, car engines and the rest of that stuff."

Ms. Sanders, who ran a 30-month study on computer equity financed by the National Science Foundation, said: "Women are socialized to believe they have no mechanical sense and cannot operate a machine. Obviously, it's total nonsense, but it creates a feeling ofguilt."

In addition to this psychological resistance to computers, some authorities cite other, more rational reasons to be wary of the sweeping promises of the digital age: a possible weakening of community spirit, a widening gap between electronic haves and have-nots, a greater threat to privacy and a clutter of junk in a 500-channel universe.

Despite the doubts, technophobia may be "a passing phenomenon," according to Robert Aiken, a computer scientist at Temple University in Philadelphia, who has been training teachers on computers for the National Science Foundation. "The younger generation has grown up with technology that was not pervasive when I was young."

Judith Rosall, director of electronic messaging research for the International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., predicted that women would soon outdo men in the digital world because "women are very intuitive and communicative."

"It's changing already," Ms. Rosall said. "Not for the older generation, but it will be different in the future for people age 50 on down. Women will be using e-mail and computers even more than men."

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