Americans on the future of science and technology: meh

Pew Internet logoA new Pew/Smithsonian report offers a sobering picture of how Americans see the future of science and technology.  At first glance the report sounds like typical futurism, revealing people imagining and weighing alternative possibilities.

But on closer examination we find our expectations are generally unexcited and restrained.  The bold imagination of 20th-century American visions seems to have gone for a nap.  As Smithsonian’s article notes, “Most Americans view the technology- driven future with a sense of hope. They just don’t want to live there.

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”  We’re actually less excited than that.

There is only one area where American expectations are both ambitious and positive: health care.  Some new medical technology looks great to us:

“Fully eight in ten (81%) expect that within the next 50 years people needing new organs will have them custom grown in a lab… three-quarters or more of every major demographic group feels that custom organs are likely to become a reality in the next half-century.”

We see medical improvements as a key and desireable part of the overall future: “Asked to describe in their own words the futuristic inventions they themselves would like to own, the public offered three common themes:… [the third of which was] health improvements that extend human longevity or cure major diseases.”

Otherwise, we back off from enthusiasm about tomorrow. Smithsonian_logoFor example, only a little more than half of us are optimistic about what technology can do for/to us in general: “Six in ten Americans (59%) feel that technological advancements will lead to a future in which people’s lives are mostly better”.  About half that many see the outcome as negative.

When it comes to specific emerging technologies we often greet them with broad, deep skepticism and fear, including human genetic engineering, robotics, drones, and wearable computing:

  • 66% think it would be a change for the worse if prospective parents could alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring.
  • 65% think it would be a change for the worse if lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health.
  • 63% think it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace.
  • 53% of Americans think it would be a change for the worse if most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them. (emphases in original)

Those first three responses reveal powerful oppositional majorities.  Taken together, they point the way into major currents of American cultures.  Are we this afraid of robots, or simply refuse to let them out of factories?

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 Is our fear of personal drones motivated by a latent sense of privacy?  Is our fear of “designer babies” motivated by religious objections or class dynamics?

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 (note that wealthier people object to DNA hacking more than do the poor)

NewYorkWorldsFair_DavidRobertBliwasEven autonomous cars meet with strong resistance: “The public is evenly divided on whether or not they would like to ride in a driverless car: 48% would be interested, while 50% would not.”  That’s half of Americans who don’t even want to set foot in one; PewSmithsonian didn’t ask about driving, much less owning one.

A stronger, different skepticism appears when Pew/Smithsonian ask us about space exploration.  The heroic days of NASA in the popular imagination are long flown: “One in three (33%) expect that humans will have colonized planets other than Earth.”  Indeed. a few more Americans actually see teleportation happening.

Why have we given up on the human exploration of space?  Age and class data reveal some answers:

Young adults are especially likely to view space colonization as a long-term eventuality: 43% of 18-29 year olds see this happening in the next half-century, compared with about a quarter of those over age 50. On the other hand, high-income Americans are pessimistic about the prospects of space colonization: just 20% of those with an annual household income of $75,000 or more think this is a realistic prediction.

The older the American, the less convinced of, or interested in, human expansion into space.  Is this due to the disappointment of post-Apollo NASA?  Wealthier Americans: do they fear being taxed more for expensive space programs, or see other priorities taking the lead?

Hoverboard, by Nicholas RumasBack on Earth, we’re even less optimistic on future transport:

A total of 19% of Americans would like to own a travel-related invention of some kind, including: a flying car or flying bike (6%), a personal space craft (4%), a self-driving car (3%), a teleportation device (3%), a jet pack (1%), or a hover car or hover board (1%).

(Weirdly, Pew sees these single-digit numbers as very accepting: “many Americans are looking forward to a future in which getting from place to place is easier, more comfortable, or more adventuresome than it is today”)

Gender seems to divide Americans on some ways of thinking about the future.  Men are much more optimistic about tomorrow than are women, for example:

Demographically, these technological optimists are more likely to be men than women, and more likely to be college graduates than to have not completed college. Indeed, men with a college degree have an especially sunny outlook: 79% of this group expects that technology will have a mostly positive impact on life in the future, while just 14% expects that impact to be mostly negative.

Specific technologies elicit similarly strong differences between the sexes:

Men and women… diverge substantially in their attitudes toward ubiquitous wearable or implantable computing devices. Men are evenly split on whether this would be a good thing: 44% feel that it would be a change for the better and 46% a change for the worse. But women overwhelmingly feel (by a 59%–29% margin) that the widespread use of these devices would be a negative development…

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Men express a greater willingness to [eat meat that was grown in a lab] than women (27% of men and 14% of women say they would give lab grown meat a try)

How much of this is due to deep cultural divides about body perception and care?  How much stems from major gender divides about STEM fields?

Overall, Americans look at the future of science and technology with some hefty amounts of skepticism and dismay.  Health care improvements do appeal to us, unsurprisingly, given our ageing demographics.  Classic futures themes of space and travel have withered in our collective mind.  I’m reminded of Bruce Sterling’s aphorism about the rest of the 21st century: “The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.”

What does this survey mean for those of us who do futures work?  It tells us much about how American audiences will respond to our research.  It suggests futuring has an avant garde sociology, with futurists and inventors in minority positions, trying to inspire the majority.  The gaps between genders, classes, and ages outline the contours of our present culture and future imagination.

(World’s Fair photo by David Robert Bliwas; hoverboard photo by Nicholas Rumas)

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