Techno-Panic Cycles (and How the Latest Privacy Scare Fits In)

by on February 24, 2011 · 12 comments

[UPDATE Feb. 2012: This little essay eventually led to an 80-page working paper, "Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle."]

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In this essay, I will suggest that (1) while “moral panics” and “techno-panics” are nothing new, their cycles seem to be accelerating as new communications and information networks and platforms proliferate; (2) new panics often “crowd-out” or displace old ones; and (3) the current scare over online privacy and “tracking” is just the latest episode in this ongoing cycle.

What Counts as a “Techno-Panic”?

First, let’s step back and define our terms. Christopher Ferguson, a professor at Texas A&M’s Department of Behavioral, Applied Sciences and Criminal Justice, offers the following definition: “A moral panic occurs when a segment of society believes that the behavior or moral choices of others within that society poses a significant risk to the society as a whole.” By extension, a “techno-panic” is simply a moral panic that centers around societal fears about a specific contemporary technology (or technological activity) instead of merely the content flowing over that technology or medium. In her brilliant 2008 essay on “The MySpace Moral Panic,” Alice Marwick noted:

Technopanics have the following characteristics. First, they focus on new media forms, which currently take the form of computer–mediated technologies. Second, technopanics generally pathologize young people’s use of this media, like hacking, file-sharing, or playing violent video games. Third, this cultural anxiety manifests itself in an attempt to modify or regulate young people’s behavior, either by controlling young people or the creators or producers of media products.

While protection of youth is typically a motivating factor, some techno-panics transcend the old “It’s For the Children” rationales for information control. What all panics share in common, however, is a general desire by the public, media pundits, and policymakers to “do something” to rid ourselves of the apparent menace. Thus, an effort to control the particular content or technology in question is what really defines a true “panic.”

It’s impossible to be scientific about this but there seems to be a cycle of such moral panics or techno-panics at work in our society.  Indeed, looking back over the past few decades, it seems that we experience a new panic roughly every 3 to 5 years. Consider this chronological breakdown of some notable techno-panics since the 1980s on:

  • mid-1980s: music lyrics and music videos
  • early to mid-1990s: violent video games
  • mid- to late 1990s: Internet porn
  • late 1990s to early 2000s: browser cookies + kids privacy
  • mid-2000: TV & movie violence
  • mid- to late 2000: online predators / “stranger danger”
  • late 2000s to present: cyberwar
  • late 2000s to present: online privacy / web “tracking”

Of course, there were other “mini-panics” that occurred during this stretch and, again, some of them did not involve child safety rationales. There was a brief panic over RFID chips and even the Y2K scare in the late 1990s, for example. Some might argue we also had a bit of panic with copyright and file-sharing back in the early 2000s, and perhaps even one back in the early 1980s when the VCR came on the scene, although that seemed to be more industry-driven. Wireless geo-location and geo-tagging has also been getting more attention recently and still may blossom into a full-blown techno-panic.   And you could make the case that we experienced a different type of techno-panic last year over the supposed “Death of the Web,” although few took that one all that seriously.

Why Do Techno-Panics Pass?

To be clear, there are no clear boundaries with techno-panics.  They do not just suddenly begin and end, and it is impossible to gauge their relative severity since no metric or yardstick exists to measure them against.  Nonetheless, these techno-panics certainly seem to have peaks and valleys in terms of public / political / media attention.

Just a few years ago, for example, the online predator panic reached a fever pitch and “stranger danger” reports were all over the media. As a result, legislation banning social networking sites in publicly funded schools and libraries was introduced, and state attorneys general proposed mandatory online age verification schemes for the Internet to segregate adults and children online. And then, it seems, the fever passed. I couldn’t tell you exactly what week or month it happened — and in many ways some of those fears still exist out there — but it’s clear that the panic about online predation has subsided greatly. I’d like to think that education and awareness helped debunk some of the myths that were fueling that particular panic, just as I’d like to believe that education and awareness helped deflate the fear bubbles that surrounded previous panics.

While I don’t want to entirely discount that possibility, I’m convinced another more cynical explanation may exist: New techno-panics simply crowd-out old techno-panics. There may be several explanations for this:

  • Perhaps there is only so much fear-mongering our minds can handle at any given time.
  • Perhaps it is becuase the media gets myopically focused on one panic and then hammers it till all the fear has been squeezed out of it such that they have to move on.
  • Perhaps it is because a new technology comes along that spooks politicians and the media even more than the previous one they were demonizing.
  • Or perhaps all of those factors combine to limit the duration of panics.

Regardless, it seems evident that moral panics and techno-panics have always been with us and will always be with us. From the waltz to rock and roll to rap music, from movies to comic books to video games, from radio and television to the Internet and social networking websites — every new media format or technology spawns a fresh debate about the potential negative effects it might have on society or our kids in particular. An excellent recent report by the U.K. government entitled Safer Children in a Digital World noted that “New media are often met by public concern about their impact on society and anxiety and polarisation of the debate can lead to emotive calls for action.” Indeed, each of the media technologies or communications platforms mentioned above was either regulated or threatened with regulation at some point in its history.

The Cycle is Accelerating but is the Severity of Each Panic Diminished as a Result?

However, it seems like these cycles are now accelerating somewhat.  They peak and fizzle out faster, that is. Perhaps that is a natural outgrowth of the technological explosion we have witnessed in recent years.  Digital innovation is unfolding at a breakneck pace and each new development gives rise to a new set of concerns. Going forward, this could mean we experience more “mini-panics” and fewer of those sweeping “the-world-is-going-to-hell” type panics.

This brings me to the current debate over online advertising, web “tracking,” and personal privacy. What’s interesting about this debate is that, unlike many of the other moral or techno-panics mentioned above, this debate is not being driven by the mantra that “It’s For the Children.”  Today’s privacy panic reflects a more widespread unease with the notion that our digital footprints are somehow being “tracked” for nefarious purposes.  In reality, there isn’t anything nefarious going on here at all. Online sites and service providers are simply using data collection to improve our web experience and better target ads to us in an attempt to cross-subsidize all that wonderful free stuff we enjoy online today. This is truly one of the great pro-innovation, pro-consumer success stories of modern times.  Yet, irrational fears about data collection and targeted marketing have given rise to the second major privacy techno-panic of the past dozen years. (Again, the first privacy-related panic was the “cookie craze” that took place back in the late-90s but then subsided). It is also somewhat ironic that many of the same people and groups who have done yeoman’s work debunking techno-panics in other contexts are driving this modern privacy panic.

I want to make it clear that I am not oblivious to the fact that there are occasionally some legitimate concerns behind some of these moral panics or techno-panics.  For example, I certainly don’t want my young children (ages 9 & 6) viewing hard-core porn, playing extremely violent video games, or even reading graphic comics. And I understand that some forms of personal information are quite sensitive and a legitimate topic for policy discussions.  But, again, these concerns are typically greatly over-hyped, and to the extent that they represent more legitimate concerns, I would argue that education and empowerment-based solutions typically represent a more sensible approach than regulation. Although I sometimes question whether the “harm” that people fear is legitimate, I would hope we could work together to find more sensible ways to address people’s concerns without calling for comprehensive control of the media, content, technology, or the Internet more generally.

Resiliency, Responsibility & Common Sense

Finally, in these discussion, I believe many people overlook the importance of human adaptability and resiliency.  The amazing thing about humans is that we adapt so much better than other creatures. When it comes to technological change, resiliency is hard-wired into our genes.  “The techno-apocalypse never comes,” notes Slate’s Jack Shafer, because “cultures tend to assimilate and normalize new technology in ways the fretful never anticipate.” We learn how to use the new tools given to us and make them part of our lives and culture.  Indeed, we have lived through revolutions more radical than the Information Revolution.  We can adapt and learn to live with some of the legitimate difficulties and downsides of the Information Age. [See my recent book chapter on, "The Case for Internet Optimism, Part 1: Saving the Net From Its Detractors."]

A healthy does of humility, patience, personal responsibility, and good ‘ol common sense will usually get us through these things. Quite literally, there is no need to panic!

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