History’s Greatest TechnoPanic!

What is TechnoPanic?

The cyber-sky is falling! At least that’s what you’d be led to believe if you follow Internet policy debates these days. A veritable “technopanic” mentality is increasingly on display in debates over online child safety, privacy, cybersecurity, and even copyright policy.

At many cybersecurity hearings and events these days, various doomsayers predict an impending “Digital Pearl Harbor,” or even a “cyber 9/11,” even though these historical incidents resulted in death and destruction of a sort not comparable to attacks on digital networks. Others refer to “cyber bombs” even though no one can be “bombed” with binary code.

Debates about media policy and online safety are also riddled with paranoia and panic. The titles of recent books about television and video game content have decried the “home invasion” of “cultural terrorism” and pleaded with media creators to “stop teaching our kids to kill.” Also, the rise of online social networking sites a few years ago spawned a “predator panic” and resulted in a proposed federal ban on access to those sites in schools and libraries, as well as mandatory online age verification, which was endorsed by many state officials. Subsequent research proved this threat was wildly overblown.

Meanwhile, alarmism is on the rise in privacy debates with some regulatory advocates drawing comparisons to natural disasters or environmental catastrophes, such as a “privacy Chernobyl” or data “toxic waste” spills. Of course, in reality, data flows are nothing like Chernobyl or toxic waste since even the worst privacy violations or data breaches pose no direct threat to life or health. This is not to minimize the seriousness of data leakages since they can result in loss of privacy or even income, but those harms do not approximate death or serious illness as the inflated rhetoric implies.

Such paranoia and fears are often driven by the fact that humans are both naturally risk adverse and poor judges of risks. Thus, the survival instinct combined with poor comparative risk analysis skills lead many people to engage in, or buy into, technopanics. But other factors are often at work and, in my paper, I examine six additional factors that contribute to the rise of technopanics and “threat inflation” in the information technology sector.

  • Generational Differences: As I noted in my earlier column, “Why Do We Always Sell the Next Generation Short?” generational differences often motivate pessimistic attitudes about the impact of technology on culture and society. Parents and policymakers who dread the changes to cultural or privacy-related norms ushered in by new technologies often forget they, too, were children once and heard similar complaints from their elders about the gadgets and content and of their generation. Yet, these cycles of “juvenoia”—or “exaggerated anxiety about the influence of social change on children and youth”—repeat endlessly and drive panics from one generation to the next.
  • Hyper-Nostalgia: Ah, the “good ‘ol days.” You remember them, right? In reality, they never existed, yet excessive nostalgia about mythical bygone eras often explains the hostility to many forms of technological change. Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain, refers to this “tendency to remember past events as being more positive than they actually were” as “rosy retrospection bias.” Many critics fear how technological evolution challenges the old order, traditional values, settled norms, traditional business models, and existing institutions—even as the standard of living generally improves with each passing generation. We see this in debates about privacy when critics yearn for the supposed solitude of the past, or in copyright debates when critics bemoan the loss of record stores and traditional methods of experiencing music.
  • Bad News Sells: Many media outlets and sensationalist authors sometimes use fear-based tactics to gain influence or sell books. Fear mongering and prophecies of doom are always effective media tactics; alarmism helps break through all the noise and get heard. This is particularly true as it relates to kids and online safety where porn and predator panics have often dominated media coverage.
  • The Role of Special Interests: Many groups and institutions exaggerate fears and agitate for action because they benefit from it either directly by getting more resources from government, the public, and other benefactors, or indirectly from the glow of publicity that their alarmism generates. Many companies also overhype various online concerns and then also overplay the benefits of their particular tool as a silver-bullet solution to online porn, privacy, or cybersecurity concerns. Again, bad news sells and, in this case, it sells products and services to fearful citizens.
  • Elitist Attitudes: Academic skeptics and cultural critics often possess elitist attitudes about the technologies, platforms, or new types of media content that the masses or young adopt before they do. These elitist views are often premised on the “juvenoia” and hyper-nostalgic thinking described above. Some researchers also have an incentive to perpetuate fear since alarmist research grabs attention and attracts more funding.
  • “Third-Person-Effect Hypothesis”: When some people encounter perspectives or preferences that are at odds with their own, they are more likely to be concerned about the impact of those things on others throughout society and call upon government to “do something” to correct or counter those perspectives or preferences. Psychologists refer to this as the “third-person effect hypothesis” and it explains many technopanics and resulting calls for government intervention, especially as they relate to media policy and free speech issues.

Most technopanics blow over in time, but the short-term danger is real. Technopanics can encourage policymakers to adopt far-reaching controls on information flows and the information economy more generally.

Worse yet, continuously elevated states of fear or panic can lead to dangerous tensions throughout society. For example, the recent “stranger danger” panic has led to unfortunate suspicions about the presence of males near children. Similarly, excessive panic over cybersecurity matters can lead to paranoia about the potential danger of visiting certain digital sites or using certain digital tools that are, generally speaking, safe and beneficial to the masses.

Finally, if everything is viewed as a risk, then nothing is a risk. Fear-based tactics and inflated threat scenarios can lead to situations where individuals and society ignore quite serious risks because they are overshadowed by unnecessary panics over non-problems.

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