Chronophobia: Fear of the Future

The Pew Internet report, Automation in Everyday Life, is more about fear of automation than enthusiasm for it

Reading the recently released Pew Internet report¹, Automation in Everyday Life, I came away with several specific observations, like the growing concerns about joblessness in an increasingly automated world.

Americans’ concerns about emerging automation technologies demonstrate a deepening fear of the future, or chronophobia.

But more than anything else the report highlights a growing appreciation of something more fundamental: Americans’ concerns about emerging automation technologies demonstrate a deepening fear of the future, or chronophobia.

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source: Pew Internet

Here are some supporting examples from the report, which shows that Americans are

  • around twice as likely to express worry (72%) than enthusiasm (33%) about automation — via AI, algorithms, and robots — of today’s human jobs
  • three times as likely to express worry (67%) than enthusiasm (22%) about ‘driverless’ hiring decisions (zero human involvement).

Notably, almost 60% of Americans say they ‘would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle or use a robot caregiver for themselves or a family member’.

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source: Pew Internet

Of course, these options are only hypothetical, and there is a likelihood that people’s attitudes about such technologies will change as they are actually available, but the level of concern demonstrated in this study is sobering, especially in light of the level of investment and research being directed toward bringing these technologies to market in the very near future.

Only 9% of those surveyed believe the majority of cars on the road would be driverless in less than 10 years, and 36% believe it will be more than 50 years before the majority of cars will be.

Major automobile manufacturers are projecting highly or completely autonomous vehicles on the roads in the next few years, and some predicting driverless available as early as 2018. But only 9% of those surveyed believe the majority of cars on the road would be driverless in less than 10 years, and 36% believe it will be more than 50 years before the majority of cars will be. (If ever there was a case of trying to wish away what is scary, this is it.)

I wonder how many would have thought that smartphone adoption would have been so fast, if polled back in 2005, prior to the tangible reality of the iPhone? I know for a fact that Nielsen and other TV analysis firms pooh-poohed cable-cutting in ’12, and ’13, and were proven wrong.

Amara’s rule is that people overestimate the rate of technological change in the short term, and underestimate it in the long run. The fact is, with regard to driverless and other AI-driven automation, we aren’t looking at the short run, today. We are rising fast on a disruption curve, and the next few years will be the cresting of that wave. Cruise control became available in the 1950s with the Chrysler Imperial, remember.

This chart, sourced by Morgan Stanley research and posted by Jeremiah Owyang in 2015, is a better predictor of what is likely with driverless than popular sentiment:

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source: Morgan Stanley Research via Jeremiah Owyang

Phase 3, with complete driverless capability is projected in the next few years, and (leaving aside the ‘utopian society’ wisecrack) full penetration by the early ‘30s.

And regarding automation of hiring workers, that’s not a futures issue any longer: many industries and companies use highly automated hiring solutions already.

But there is more to fear than fear itself

While people’s fear of the impact of automation might lead them to believe (or wish) the rollout of these technologies is decades away (like we do with climate change), their desire for controlling the technologies as a way to minimizing or slowing the social disruptions that might accompany their diffusion shouldn’t be discounted.

58% of those surveyed say that ‘there should be limits on the number of jobs business can replace with machines, even if they are better and cheaper than humans’, and 85% either favor (38%) or strongly favor (47%) that machines should be limited to doing dangerous or unhealthy jobs. 61% either favor (30%) or strongly favor (31%) a guaranteed income if robots and AI become competitive with human workers.

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source: Pew Internet

These concerns look like the planks of a future Democratic platform, perhaps even in 2020. 77% of Democrats surveyed favor the basic income counter to AI and robot competition with humans, compared with only 38% of Republicans.

The problem in this case may be that people’s wanting to believe automation and human displacement from work will not become manifest until some distant future, when in fact it’s happening now. (Again, this is just like climate change.)

The range and degree of emotion and concern

People are deeply concerned — perhaps frightened is a bit strong, but not too strong — about the implications of automation in work and everyday life, and they are looking for policy and regulatory controls to counter, slow, or mitigate the impacts on people and our economic system.

There is a great deal more in the report, including very nuanced questions. For example, ‘57% would feel better about the concept of a hiring algorithm if it was only used for the initial screening of job candidates prior to a traditional in-person interview’. This sort of fine-grained insight to people’s concerns and hopes makes the report of great and enduring value.

The polarity of opinions across Democrats and Republicans and between technology enthusiasts versus those who are ambivalent or hesitant is well explored in the report, and to a deeper level than what we generally see in research of this sort.

At the same time the top level message that comes from this research is very clear: People are deeply concerned — perhaps frightened is a bit strong, but not too strong — about the implications of automation in work and everyday life, and they are looking for policy and regulatory controls to counter, slow, or mitigate the impacts on people and our economic system.

Everyone concerned with social, economic, and labor policies should take a very close look at these results, and incorporate their meaning into policy and planning.

  1. I confess that I had the opportunity to read the report long before its release, as I serve as an advisor to the Pew work in this area, and worked with the authors, Aaron Smith and Monica Anderson. I was honored to be mentioned in the report with other advisors: David Autor, Ford Professor of Economics, MIT; Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed; and Frank Levy, Rose Professor Emeritus, MIT and research associate, Harvard Medical School.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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