Fear Itself   /   Fall 2003   /    Articles

Being Left Behind

The Discourse of Fear in Technological Change

Felicia Wu Song

A young boy downloads a new game on his mother's Samsung outside of their home in Bandung, Indonesia. May 4, 2017. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Drive straight up the way and you’ll hit Progress Road, then just go till you can’t anymore. Progress dead-ends at the prison.

—Patricia Williams11xPatricia Williams, “The Slough of Despond,” Nation (9 March 1998): 10.

Many scholars argue that modernity has extinguished itself and the grand narratives of the Enlightenment have gasped their last breath. Claims of universal Progress are viewed as naïve at best, and oppressive at worst, making the hope of arriving one day at a final state of earthly perfection the “deadest of dead ideas.”22xChristopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven (New York: Norton, 1991) 41. In a period of growing consensus among scholars about the obsolescence of Progress, it seems, however, that there is still one final bastion of hope: the realm of technology. Throughout modernity, science and technology have been lauded as the critical means for humanity’s inevitable march down the road of Progress. Technology and Progress have been perceived not only to work in conjunction with each other, but also to be synonymous. It is surprising, then, to find that even as key elements of modernity crumble, contemporary forecasts about technology continue to glow with unfettered enthusiasm. Books like Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, and Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital still become bestsellers, and the stream of utopian promises continues to grip our imaginations. To encounter such resilience of faith in technology’s benevolence is astounding, particularly in the chastening aftermaths of such technological disasters as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the space shuttle tragedies.

Further still, it seems unlikely that even the terrible events of September 11, 2001 will cause our hope in technology to waver. Writer Wendell Berry begins his essay, “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” with the forceful claim that the time will soon come when September 11th will be remembered as the day when unquestioned technological optimisim ended.33xWendell Berry, In the Presence of Fear (Great Barrington: The Orion Society, 2001). His statement perceptively points to how this recent crisis offered a horrific demonstration of both the destructive uses of technology and a chilling sense of vulnerability even in the most technologically-advanced and technologically-rich nation in the world. And yet, the events and attitudes following that pivotal day suggest that our beliefs in Progress and technology after September 11th are not so different from what they were before it.

Scholars of the dominant discourses in American cultural history have consistently noted that Progress, while losing its legitimacy in other realms of social life, continues to be a powerful ideology in the production and reception of technology. Today’s technological visions of global harmony, richly diverse societies, limitless creativity, endless productivity, and unbounded freedom echo those of the Enlightenment philosophes. The ties between the ideologies of Progress found in Enlightenment and contemporary discourses on technology have been well-studied and observed. While it is natural to presume that the impressively rapid rate of Internet adoption across the country and in all spheres of life can be largely attributed to a residual modernist zeal for technology, I want to suggest that there is more to the story.44xIn comparison to the 46 years that it took for electricity to reach 30% use in the general population (38 years for the telephone and 17 years for the television), it only took 7 years for the Internet to reach similar usage. In 2001, over 60% of the U.S. population had access to the Internet compared to 6.7% in 1995. (Jeffrey I. Cole, “The UCLA Internet Report: Surveying the Digital Future,” UCLA Center for Communication Policy, available at http://www.ccp.ucla.edu.) For excellent discussions of changing rates of Internet access and usage, see James Katz and Ronald Rice’s Social Consequences of Internet Use (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002) and Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornthwaite’s The Internet in Everyday Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003).

A recent survey of businesses shows that up to 87% of respondents own or have access to a computer, of which 84% are online and 60% have developed Web pages. What is striking about the data from this survey, however, is that one-third of its respondents report “fear of being left behind” as the primary reason for information technology deployment. In fact, almost half of small businesses with computers believe their staff lack adequate computer skills, and 37% report that their own skills are also inadequate.55xLisa Kelly, “Fear Drives Small Finns’ Technology Choice,” Computer Weekly (26 July 2001): 8. As Margaret Wertheim has suggested, the “mere availability of network technology…is not sufficient to explain why the public has rushed to embrace [it] with such enthusiasm. People do not adopt a technology simply because it is there.”66xMargaret Wertheim, “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace,” Architecture of Fear, ed. Nan Ellin (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997) 295. While technological adoption may have been characterized by excitement in the early stages, as it has become increasingly integrated and institutionalized into our everyday lives, the excitement has taken on a new dimension. The self-fulfilling tendencies of the sweeping rush for technology has made technology “necessary” for all countries, businesses, schools, and parents now. I want to argue that the impetus behind technological adoption is not only the pull of the utopian dreams of Progress, as many observers have noted, but also the push of fear—specifically the fear of being left behind. The resulting anxiety and duress that drives so many businesses, organizations, and individuals to invest in technology are noticeably absent from the standard technologist’s dreams.

This essay takes a look at the use of the expression “being left behind” and examines how this fear dominates technological discourse and shapes our perceptions, attitudes, and practices concerning new information and communication technologies. I argue that, working alongside the utopian and optimistic approaches to technological investment, the ubiquitously expressed fear of “being left behind” expresses a deeply penetrating psychology of fear and stark fatalism at work particularly in today’s business and global environment. While the cultural meaning of Internet metaphors such as “the information superhighway,” “cyberspace,” and “information revolution” have been explored, surprisingly little has been said about the fear of “being left behind” and the subtle, but critical, ways in which it signifies key shifts in the contemporary narrative of Progress.

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