Time to stop panicking about innovation

Technology | Jennifer Huddleston 13 Jan 2020

The start of a new decade is a fun time to reflect on what life was like at the start of the previous one.

In the 2010s, technology continued to advance and improve our lives. Things that once were science fiction, like driverless cars or virtual reality, are now viable and may soon become commonplace.

However, we still fear new technologies and their role in society. The more things change, the more they stay the same. As the past has shown, we need to ask whether our concerns are based on facts or just a reaction to something new and different.

It's easy to forget how recently much of the technology we now take for granted came about.

At the start of the 2010s, only 20 percent of US households had a smartphone. Today, over 80 percent do. In 2010, Starbucks was in the news for offering free wifi at all of its locations. Today, most of us expect it in hotels, coffee shops and restaurants.

Less than 5 percent of the US population was using social media platforms when the decade started. Now, nearly 80 percent use sites like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

We've also seen new technologies come about. Wearable tech like FitBits and Apple Watches, streaming devices like Roku and Amazon Fire, voice assistants like Siri and Alexa and smart devices from video doorbells to "smart" microwaves all took off.

Even as we've adopted new tech at faster and faster rates, "technopanics," or widespread, irrational fears about the worst-case scenarios of innovation, continue to emerge.

It's easy to laugh at past generations' fears of microwave ovens and electricity, but how different are these from similarly unfounded fears about wifi in recent years? As 5G wireless networks emerge at the start of the 2020s, the same type of fears, with little to no scientific backing, are creeping up again.

We also seem to be stuck in the same technology policy concerns. The early 2000s were fraught with many of the same questions about whether or not to break up "Big Tech," the influence of technology in our lives and on children, data privacy and online content that fill our headlines today.

Today, decades-old headlines (like "How Yahoo won the search wars") can read like a set of Mad Libs in which one merely inserts the name of the technological behemoth du jour. This should teach us two key lessons.

First, technology is an incredibly dynamic market in which the best solutions tend to come from innovation rather than government intervention.

By focusing only on the status quo, we often fail to foresee disruptive shifts like the rise of smartphones or streaming entertainment.

Second, for all our fears, this marketplace tends to provide enough options to suit different peoples' preferences when it comes to values, interests and desire for privacy and content.

If there's something you don't like or have always wanted, there's a good chance some innovator, somewhere, will have a solution ready before long.

The start of a new year and a new decade is a time for nostalgia, goals, and resolutions.

Perhaps we should set a resolution for 2020 and beyond: to technopanic a little less.

Tribune News Service

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