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1.12: Neophobia

Fifteen months into an 18-month study of technophobia - the fear of machines, I realized that what I was really studying was neophobia - the fear of new things. Technology is what happens currently to be new. Neophobia is not so irrational. It makes good biological sense to be afraid of new things. As long as things remain the same, there is no danger. It is change which is threatening. That is why the nervous system is designed to detect change. That is why the bank robber says No sudden moves!

More sophisticated animals, like ourselves, have built-in curiosity, satisfied by novel things, which balances the organically built-in fear of new things. Curiosity causes us to explore new things which turns the unfamiliar into the familiar and, thus, removes the danger and the threat of danger. One useful image of ourselves is as a child at a mother's apron-strings. The child ventures out to explore but rushes back to base when threatened. As we get older, we move out further and further and stay out longer and longer. Neil Armstrong got all the way to the moon without his mother. However, we still spend our lives maintaining a precarious balance between the contentment of familiar things (the suburban castle surrounded by lawn moat, the corner bar or sidewalk café, the tenured position in university, or whatever symbolic equivalent we have substituted for our mothers' apron-strings) and the excitement of unfamiliar things.

I described my life as a balance between the contentment of familiar things and the excitement of unfamiliar things to a friend. He replied that his life is walking a tightrope between fear and boredom. We suddenly realized that we were both described the same thing. Fear is the negative side of excitement and boredom is the negative side of contentment.

The author has a what-am-I-doing-here? Speech which he gives whenever he finds himself speaking at a conference on computer and telecommunications technology. It opens with a demonstration of his ignorance of the technical tricks of the trade. Dah, I thought K was 1000 - dollars that is - and not 1024 bits, as I have recently been told. I thought bytes, nybbles, and gulps were about eating and drinking. I then proceed to discuss the question in its five forms, depending on which of the five words is emphasized:

What am I doing here?
What am I doing here?
What am I doing here?
What am I doing here?
What am I doing here?
The answer to the third question - What am I doing here? - is that the introduction of new technology is not just a technological issue but also a psychological issue. As a psychologist, perhaps I can contribute to the topic. Indeed, I am not just any old psychologist - I am a psychologist who has published a textbook called The Psychology of Teaching.6 The introduction of new technology is an aspect of the psychology of teaching. Indeed. teaching could well be considered as the art and science of introducing people to what is new to them.

This book is designed to help you maintain that balance between contentment and excitement on our planet. It aspires to make familiar certain things which may be unfamiliar. You may then be better able to decide which aspects of the new technology you will approach and which aspects you will avoid. To say that you love or hate machines is like saying that you love or hate people. It takes all sorts. You may find that you love some, hate others, and regard most with that benign indifference which understanding makes possible. I have not yet designed a scale for measuring neophobia. However, a whimsical scale for measuring computerphobia is presented as Figure 1-1.



6   W. Lambert Gardiner, The Psychology of Teaching. Monterey, California, Brooks/Cole, 1980.