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1.12: Technophobia

The major instrument for measuring math phobia is the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale, consisting of 98 situations involving mathematics (e.g. Having someone watch you as you total up a column of figures).3 The subject is invited to indicate how frightening this situation is on a five-point scale ranging from "not at all" to "very much". A parallel instrument for measuring technophobia was developed by the author for the Department of Communications of the Canadian Federal Government, in which situations involving machines were substituted for those involving mathematics.4 This scale was administered to 100 subjects.

The situations were arranged in order of "frighteningness" on the basis of the responses. Situations involving dangerous machines (Watching an operation, Cutting down a tree with a chain saw) were first and second on the list of 50 situations. This illustrates one difference between technophobia and math phobia. The former may be based partly on the fact that machines can be physically dangerous. Maths, on the other hand, can do you no bodily harm. (Though the violent reaction of some people to maths suggests that their mothers had been scared by a square root sign while they were in the womb or they had had a traumatic experience with a surd while very young).

On the other hand, some items which ranked very high (Listening to someone explain how something works and finding you do not understand - fourth on list, Using a machine that you have never used before - sixth on list) suggest that there is a psychic as well as a physical component to technophobia. This is further supported by the fact that 10-20% of a sophisticated group of subjects admitted to some fear in such apparently innocuous situations as Making a long-distance telephone call, Using an electric can-opener, Replacing a light bulb, Getting cigarettes from a vending machine (ranked 41, 42, 43, 45). There is little doubt that technophobia is wide-spread; that a class on "machines without anxiety" would be well-attended.

Many of us are exhilerated by this recent spate of new information machines, which promise to transform our society. We technophiles are surfing on the wave of the future. Hang ten - here comes the Third Wave. However, I would like to say a word for those of us who are terrified, those of us for whom the machines are a threat rather than a promise - the technophobes. We are all on the same surf-board, so to speak. Electronic technology is sweeping us, technophiles and technophobes alike, willy-nilly, toward some uncertain future.

Technophobes can not simply be dismissed as "latter-day Luddites". Underlying their fear are many legitimate concerns about technology. There is appropriate anti-technology too. We cannot simply assume the technological imperative - invention is the mother of necessity. We cannot simply continue to make better and better mouse-traps and sell them to the mice. It is time to squeak up.

Marshall McLuhan predicted, just before his death, that the 1980s would be characterized by massive resistance to new technology by a future-shocked public which would finally say enough to on-rushing technology.5 We are only halfway clever if we continue to develop more and more wonderful machines without considering the people who will use them.

3   R. M. Suinn, The MARS: A measure of mathematics anxiety: Psychometric data. Journal of Clinical Psychology, July 1972, 28 (3), Pages 373-375.

4   W. Lambert Gardiner, A study of attitudes toward new communication technologies. Information Society Program, Paper No. 1-14. Montreal: GAMMA, April 1982.

5   Marshall McLuhan. MacLean's, 7 January 1980, Pages 32-33.