Isaac Asimov’s Technophobia – why he feared the word processor

This is a review of Technophobia, an Isaac Asimov essay which appeared in 1982’s The Roving Mind. It’s an excellent collection of writing on all manner of topics: creationism and evolution in schools, the relationship between technology and science, and even beyond the solar system (and the present) in essays on space exploration prospects, the emerging computerized world, and even the hotels of the future. It’s sometimes eerie to read about his visions of our future world, writing in “The Ultimate Communication” that we will soon have “a universal videophone capable of transmitting and accepting sound and image. We would want it small and mobile, but very complex and versatile, and yet stable and reasonably foolproof.” Sounds a bit like an iPhone, Android or Blackberry smartphone, doesn’t it? He later goes on to write about how computers will be able to offer personalized learning, describing a system which sounds an awful lot like the Internet, which of course piqued my curiosity. (But I’ll leave that for another post.)

Technophobia

“I hate signing up for new websites!” “I don’t want to learn how to use some new computer program!” “Do we have to do this? Why can’t we just make a poster or a binder?” “I can’t keep up with these new laptops and phones! I like my old one better.”

We’ve all heard something along these lines in all walks of life, but I’m finding that these sentiments tend to be much more prevalent in the world of education. I always thought that I was not very tech-savvy, but I was amazed at the level of incompetency in a variety of technological skills and the absence of motivation to learn new tools displayed by some of my colleagues at the start of the year, and was dismayed to find that the problem seemed to exist in most schools as well. Why is it that teachers and teacher-candidates seem so unwilling to learn new technologies?

I discussed my observations and concerns with some more tech-savvy friends and colleagues, and tried to pinpoint the nature of this unwillingness. Why is it that we are so against signing up for a new website, or switching to a different email provider? I recently picked up Isaac Asimov’s Roving Mind, as per the  recommendation of Maria Popova (7 Must-Read Books on Education), and was delighted to find that Asimov had articulated the problem more perfectly than I ever could have imagined, in his brilliant essay Technophobia.

Asimov defines technophobia as “a morbid fear of technological advance” and in a few short pages, provides examples (both general and personal), metaphorical comparisons, and remedies to the problem. Technophobia exists in a variety of forms, and Asimov focuses his essay on the form “that involves the fear of a new advance in technology on the part of those whose professional career is actually involved with technology, and who clearly stand to benefit from the advance.”

“Human beings learn how to handle numerous complicated devices in their lifetimes. The learning is not always easy, but once the complications are learned – if they are learned properly – it all becomes automatic. The thought of abandoning it and learning something else, of going through the process again, is terribly frightening.”

Asimov thus defines technophobia as “the fear of re-education” and explains that “we invent reasons for resisting the change, but the real reason is that we dread the process of re-learning.” We see this fear rear its ugly head in all shapes and forms: business executives refusing to implement new software, the American public fearing a transition to the much more logical metric system, and writers (Asimov included) who fought the adjustment from typewriters to computerized word processors.

Asimov uses the example of his resistance to the word processor (this was written in 1982) in order to illustrate some valuable insights. He resisted the transition to a computer from a typewriter not because he loved his typewriter, but because he had put so many hours into learning how to use that typewriter. He did not want to have to learn something new, especially when (as far as he was concerned at the time) the new tool offered little improvement in quality over the old tool. In 2011, I’d argue that point – as we now see just how fluid and dynamic digital text can be, and the freedom we have as a result. Asimov makes another good point in saying that “re-education must be recognized for the highly difficult (and even more so) embarrassing process it is.” He goes on to explain that he only agreed to switch to a computer when his publisher sent Radio Shack employees to his home, so that he could learn the new tool in private, away from the eyes of more experienced users of word processors.

I think that this is an important insight for educators who want to bring new tools into the classroom. Perhaps we can utilize virtual classrooms and blended learning in order to give students (and teachers) access to new websites and software from the privacy of their own homes, away from the judgmental eyes of their peers.

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