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Ethical Technophile – Where’s My Jetpack: Do Americans Really Want Emerging Tech?

David Moyer

David Moyer covers emerging technology and ethics. A freelance journalist, he has worked for several clients in a writing and consulting capacity. He graduated from the University of North Texas with degrees in Political Science and Religious Studies. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, and passionate debate.

Ethical Technophile – Where's My Jetpack: Do Americans Really Want Emerging Tech?

With technologies like tablets, touch screens, computers in cars and cloud computing becoming ubiquitous, inventions that were once firmly in the realm of science fiction are becoming a daily reality.

The coming decades promise to be a period of profound scientific change that will likely alter elements of human life at a pace unheard of even 10 years ago. Recently, the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine conducted an extensive study of American opinions regarding a range of potential scientific advances.

The study asked about emerging technologies, such as robotics and genomic medicine, and also questioned participants about future possible technologies, such as teleportation and space colonization. The responses of the participants revealed a fascinating duality in the perception of emerging technology.

When asked about the future in broad terms, 59 percent of those polled are optimistic that technological and scientific changes will make life in the future better, compared with only 30 percent who believe that these changes will lead to a future where people are worse off than they are today.

Yet, when asked about specific emerging technologies, the majority opinion is largely negative. Essentially, when it comes to many emerging technologies, Americans believe they will have a positive net impact on society, yet do not want to utilize these technologies themselves.

Understanding this duality is important from both an ethical and business standpoint, as it illustrates the hesitations and concerns Americans have about the broad spectrum of emerging technology. Allying these concerns is crucial if they are to achieve lasting market success. In addition, understanding the underlying ethics of these concerns is crucial for developing a coherent ethical framework for emerging technologies.

While the full study is far too lengthy to explore in detail, lets take a look at several more telling results.

  • 66 percent think it would be a change for the worse if prospective parents could alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier or more athletic offspring.

While on the surface this response is not surprising, the fact that therapeutic genetic alterations are opposed by a majority of Americans is troubling. The specter of eugenics has haunted the field of genetics since its inception, but therapeutic genetic alterations have massive potential for the alleviation of suffering and treating currently incurable diseases.

Interestingly, 31 percent of lower-income Americans support DNA alteration, while only 18 percent of middle- and upper-income Americans support it. Drawing any substantive conclusions from this statistic would be foolhardy, but it would be a reasonable speculation that the disparity in access to medical services between lower- and upper-income Americans might inform their positions.

This opposition to emerging technology extends past genetics.

  • 53 percent of those surveyed believe that people being fed information by devices or implants would be a “change for the worse,” compared with only 37 percent who believed it would be a “change for the better.”

With companies such as Google, Samsung, and Apple increasingly focusing on wearable technologies – Google Glass and the LeapFrog fitness band for kids – the fact that the majority of Americans are actually apprehensive about wearable tech is a significant hurdle for bringing wearable devices successfully to the market. It will only be more difficult for tech startups.

In fact, when current smartphone owners were asked if they would buy Google Glass if they could afford it, only 10 percent responded that they would.

I would encourage anyone who is interested in the field of emerging technology to read the full Pew Results, but for the moment, let’s refocus on the core conclusions of the results. As an abstract, most Americans believe technological advancement will make the world a better place. However, Americans have deep reservations about the effect many specific technologies will have.

Do these results simply illustrate a natural opposition to unfamiliar change, or is there a deeper technophobic undercurrent to Americans’ opinion of emerging technologies? A compelling case can be made for neither of these options being entirely accurate. As the pace of technological development continues to increase, Americans are being asked to accept and adopt new technologies at a proportionally increasing rate.

For many, this is a daunting prospect. No sooner have they become confident in their ability with one technology than they are asked to adopt another. And this is not merely a generational issue, as, according to the Pew survey, opinions of technology did not largely differ between age groups.

For most Americans, it seems the pace of technological development has outstripped their ability to adapt to change.

While this is an issue that certainly has ethical implications, one of the easiest ways to address this problem comes not from ethics, but from marketing. When it comes to marketing emerging technology, emphasis is usually placed on how revolutionary the technology is, how much it will change the world. Perhaps new technologies should be presented not as individual revolutionary devices, but as improvements on already existing and familiar technologies. The fact is, technological innovation is actually more frequently incremental, rather than revolutionary.

Does it follow that a shift in how emerging technology is presented to the public is necessary to counter the fear of new technologies?

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