“I have a theory,” says Genevieve Bell.
Bell is one of those people who, whenever they say “I have a theory,” you listen, because you know it’s going to be a great one. And if you want to understand why fear always accompanies new technology, then you can’t do better than to talk to Bell, whose wide-ranging curiosity has for many years been put into service working for Intel, studying the interaction between humans and machines.
“I think fear comes along when magic disappears,” she says.
Bell’s theory is, like all great theories, both simple and powerful. This one has hints of a kind of impressionistic conservation law. (“Fear cannot be created nor destroyed…”)
One of Bell’s key insights is that fear is a deeply human emotion: it will never go away. So when science comes along and makes us unafraid of the things we used to be afraid of, that fear effectively gets displaced elsewhere. And more often than not, technology becomes the new canvas onto which our fears get painted.
Before the scientific revolution, we were frightened of magical things: we blamed misfortune on the devil, and we managed our fear with gods and sprites and other forms of magical thinking. But then science came along, and starts explaining stuff. The telescope, the microscope, the discovery of statistical analysis – all of these things structure the world, turn it into something tractable. So, what happens to fear?
“The world up until then was full of magic,” says Bell. “Now it is suddenly knowable, but the world is no less fearful. The magic goes away, and the fear attaches itself to the technology.”
What’s more, these days, the fear is personal, in an importantly new way. Cellphones are tactile objects which we finger all day long; the Apple Watch and the iPhone 6S even respond to our touch with pleasant buzzes. “The body,” says Bell, “is the ultimate site of pain points and aspiration”; it’s quite literally who we are. Given that the job of technology is to address aspirations and pain points, when those locations are physical, things get, in Bell’s phrase, “really trippy”.
“Technology is getting closer to our sense of self,” says Bell. “We’ve worn watches and eyeglasses and prosthetic limbs, but that technology wasn’t connected to something else.”
As connected technology gets closer and closer to our bodies, we end up imbuing it with the same kind of importance that we attached in another era to prayer beads or the rosary, which were connected directly to God.
God, of course, was greatly feared in those pre-Enlightenment days, and so perhaps it’s no great surprise that some of that same fear has now attached itself to the latest generation of wearable and connected products.
“Fear has always been there, but there’s a particular moment of time when it leaps from one domain to another,” says Bell. The story of fear landing on technology is not a new one: When trains first came along, physicians intoned that the human body could not travel at more than 60mph. Similar fears attached themselves to electricity, to steam engines, to television and to radio, and, of course, to the internet. All of them, says Bell, “got loaded down with the same fear and versions of moral panic,” even the most seemingly benign objects. “When I was a girl I was told to get my head out of books,” she remembers. “Get outside.”
When cars were first introduced, for instance, they were terrifying: “rapacious monsters designed to kill children,” says Bell. “The fear of cars hasn’t gone away, it has just been transposed onto autonomous vehicles.”
The fear isn’t new: it goes back at least to 1818, when Mary Shelley created the indelible image of Frankenstein’s monster. The fear hasn’t changed much since then: it’s “the fear of a world that you cannot control but you can understand; and a twin fear about who gets to make life,” says Bell. “The business of gods, not humans. There are lots of stories about what happens when humans try to make life. The golem figure. You have a figure brought to life, and the animating force is a technology.”
There is a rational basis for the fears: people really do put enormous amounts of effort into trying to use technology to create life. This dates back far further than talk of Singularity or the Turing Test, all the way to the invention of electricity: “They did a lot of things with electricity and frogs,” says Bell, drily.
And although most of the specific fears ended up being misplaced, the general fears were correct. These technologies changed our lives in profound ways, and not always for the better. The steam engine caused pollution, the radio propagated propaganda, and thanks to electricity, none of us get enough sleep. Technological change, says Bell, always means power relationships, and capital, and knowledge, and skills, being rebalanced in far-reaching ways.
“Fear,” she says, “is a way to rehearse the underlying anxiety.”
Fear can also proliferate faster than ever. Images, evidence, theories—everything spreads at unprecedented speed these days, thanks to social media. And it can spread among non-geographic communities, too. While some fears are national (Americans are more likely to fear the government; Germans are more likely to fear invasions of privacy), others spread among certain socio-economic groups: college-educated hippies, for instance, are a particularly virulent vector for fear of vaccines.
Fear is a deeply physical emotion, and fear of technology is often associated with fear of “the loss of bodied knowledge,” says Bell. “It’s about rendering humans irrelevant. Anxiety about what makes us special. Nostalgia about the way things never were.”
It even shows up in the rise of the artisanal economy: the resurgence of vinyl and domestic crafting, the unprecedented popularity of tattoos. “We’re putting the body back into the conversation,” says Bell. “We’re moving back from the digital.”
It’s only natural: it’s what we’ve done for 200 years. It’s nothing to be afraid of.