The word technophobia derives from the Greek words techne, an art or craft, and phobia, fear. As Hal Hellman notes, this word is most often used to refer to fear: “fear of technology, fear of science, fear of change in general” (Hellman 1976, p. xi). The customary use of the word has been pejorative. Thus Daniel Dinello remarks that technophobia has been “deployed mainly by rabid technophiles who believe that questioning technology’s direction is crazy if not satanic” (Dinello 2005, p. 8). However, the word has come to refer not only to fear of technology or dislike of particular technologies but to general critiques of technology.
Champions of technology like Hellman allege that critics of technology are motivated by fear and anxiety, a charge implying that technology critics suffer from a psychological condition. In his 1998 publication the psychologist Mark J. Brosnan elevated this ad hominem approach to academic respectability by developing a model of the cognitive and psychosocial factors that might account for feelings of fear and anxiety about technology.
Like the word technocrat, technophobia can be used ironically. Dinello, for example, appropriates the label technophobe for the critic of technology. Rather than pursue questions of definition further, however, a brief and selective discussion of critiques of technology follows.
Technology critics represent various ethical and social perspectives. Some, such as Jacques Ellul and Martin Heidegger, see technology as dehumanizing or as an expression of inauthenticity or idolatry. Others, such as Langdon Winner, critique technology because of its political or social effects, for example, its threat to political values such as freedom and democracy. Still others, such as Carolyn Merchant and Nancy Lublin, examine technology largely on account of its gendered qualities or its damaging environmental effects.
All these lines of critique share the view that there exists a unified ensemble called “technology” as such, a phenomenon that is in some sense “autonomous” (Winner 1977), operating through a logic of its own in which human decisions do not count. This view challenges technological optimism on the part of liberals and Marxist socialists (e.g., Karl Marx’s optimism that what matters is not technology as such but which class controls technology). “Technophobes” do not merely allege that technologies are evil because oppressors control them and would be beneficial under a different form of social organization. Rather, they claim that an irresistible logic of technological autonomy trumps all forms of social organization and political agency, both individual and collective. The technology critic Winner, for example, refers to “reverse adaptation” (Winner 1977, pp. 226–251), a perverse logic in which political and other social ends have become determined by the means necessary to achieve them. For Winner, this and other characteristics of autonomous technology render democratic self-governance virtually impossible. As Henry Jenkins (1999) notes, technology as such may be said to constitute, not merely reinforce, systems of power and social control, leading to violations of human freedom and civil liberties. Ironically, the claim that technology erodes freedom may be encouraged by technophile arguments that technological development is historically irresistible and hence uncontrollable by political or other means.
The term Luddite is commonly used to characterize technophobes. Yet the early-nineteenth-century Luddites did not fear all technology. Rather, they attacked the specific technologies of textile production that they saw as oppressive. Over two centuries, however, technology critiques shifted from a focus on production technology to an emphasis on the technologies of consumption, entertainment, education, and so forth. In the early twenty-first century the technologies especially arousing “technophobic” hostility include biotechnology (genetic manipulation, cloning, and eugenics), nanotechnology and robots, nuclear energy, and of course computers and cyber technology, all of which provoke distrust because of their places in the sphere of consumption.
Whereas in the nineteenth century the Romantic movement was responsible for much technology critique, in the twentieth century technophobia became associated with the political left (Heidegger and Ellul are prominent exceptions), especially those portions of the cultural left not identifying with orthodox Marxism. Social critics, such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, and radical environmentalists, such as ecologists and ecofeminists, for example, Merchant, have frequently expressed deep suspicion about technology and its “conquest of nature.” Conservatives, such as Thomas R. DeGrigori, especially in the United States with its market-libertarian traditions, tend to embrace technology or at least oppose government regulation of technology. Digital technology in particular flourishes in unregulated markets. On the other hand, certain technologies, such as biomedical technologies, are regarded by many conservatives as incompatible with religious faith. Of course the Old Order Amish are known for their avoidance of technologies associated with electricity and internal combustion on grounds of religion and community life.
The technological revolution shows no signs of abating. Hence technophobia in both senses—the psychological fear of technology and social critiques of technology—can be expected to flourish as well.
SEE ALSO Bureaucrat; Conservatism; Digital Divide; Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Libertarianism; Luddites; Marxism; Neoliberalism; Post-Traumatic Stress; Technocracy; Technocrat; Technology; Technology, Adoption of; Technology, Cellular; Technotopia
Binfield, Kevin, ed. 2004. Writings of the Luddites. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
DeGrigori, Thomas R. 2002. Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.
Dinello, Daniel. 2005. Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1977. The Question concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Garland.
Hellman, Hal. 1976. Technophobia: Getting out of the Technology Trap. New York: M. Evans.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Jenkins, Henry. 1999. The Work of Theory in the Age of Digital Transformation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. http://web.mit.edu/cms/People/henry3/pub/digitaltheory.htm.
Lublin, Nancy. 1998. Pandora’s Box: Feminism Confronts Reproductive Technology. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The Death of Nature. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Santana, Beatriz. 1997. Introducing the Technophobia/Technophilia Debate: Some Comments on the Information Age. University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Education. http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/courses/ed253a/beatriz.htm.
Winner, Langdon. 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.