A Fear of Toys to Come

Americans love their GPS, but the high-tech products of the future—driverless cars, especially—give people the willies.

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Americans can’t seem to get enough of the latest gadgets, yet they remain more hesitant about the impact of technology that is still in development, such as self-driving cars and wearable mobile devices—Google glasses and the like.

The most popular devices are those using GPS, according to the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll. Half of the survey’s respondents gave mostly positive reviews to location-tracking implements. Almost as many (43 percent) were mostly supportive of home devices that work wirelessly, such as thermostats, lights, and security alarms; a third of respondents voiced mixed feelings. Americans are also torn, the poll showed, on the impact of mobile devices that keep getting smaller, such as smartwatches and high-tech glasses. More than a third of respondents expressed mixed views about these so-called wearables, and more than a quarter mostly disliked them.

Americans aren’t sold yet on the idea of self-driving cars, especially. This was the only technology that mostly got a thumbs-down; 38 percent of the reviews were negative, and 30 percent were mixed. In follow-up interviews, survey respondents cited their safety concerns, due to the threat of technical errors or hackers.

“Anything that runs off of a computer can be hacked,” said Kendrick Denson, 27, in Shepherd, Texas. “I wouldn't trust it at all.”

But overall, millennials tended to be the most optimistic about new technologies and the positive impact on their lives. Compared to older generations, millennials were more supportive of smaller devices (like smartwatches and other wearables), driverless cars, and wirelessly connected devices in the home.

Matthew White, a 27-year-old Latino in St. Petersburg, Florida, said his smartwatch has “changed my life.” If he’s walking his dog or taking out the trash without his phone handy, it means he never misses an important phone call or text message. “At first, I wasn’t going to get one,” he said, “but when I got one, I loved it. I can’t go anywhere without it.”

Support for these technologies tended to drop steadily as the age of the respondents went up. The exception: GPS-enabled devices, which earned support from more than half of millennials and baby boomers alike. GPS devices were also the most popular device among Americans 65 and older—45 percent of them expressed approval.

James Rolls, 76, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, finds his GPS a useful tool in his everyday life. “If I'm looking for any location,” he said, “I can find it.”

Men of all ages—and men of color, in particular—were more likely than women to express support for all of these new technologies. In follow-up interviews, male respondents extolled the benefits and conveniences these new toys provide. Wirelessly connected appliances reduce energy costs, said Rolls, a retired African-American chemist, and smaller devices are easier to use. He looks forward to self-driving cars in hopes they’ll “reduce the risk of accidents for people.”

Nonwhite respondents were consistently more optimistic about the impact of each device than whites were—by 6 percentage points for GPS and by 11 points for home appliances connected to Wi-Fi.

Women of all ages were more skeptical than men were. Indeed, men older than 50 liked driverless cars and smaller devices better than women under 50 did. Among women 50 or older, only 36 percent reported a positive view about home gadgets connected to Wi-Fi.

Sara Ahmad, a 26-year-old in New York City, likes the convenience of appliances that can be controlled from afar, just so long as they’re not capable of any sophisticated commands, lest they fall into the wrong hands. If she’s out of the house and “I want to set my oven, I can set a timer—I don't want anything to be more connected beyond that,” she said. “These days, you can hack anything.”

As a programmer and app developer, Ahmad is more tech-savvy than most. She enjoys the benefits of the new technologies but, first and foremost, worries about the implications for her privacy. The more of her life that’s online, she pointed out, the easier it is to track her daily activity.

“Because we're advancing [so quickly], the way that we're advancing with spying on people and knowing every move, I don’t want to know what anyone’s doing,” Ahmad said. “And I don't want anyone to know what I'm doing.”

Three-fourths of the poll’s respondents agreed—44 percent and 34 percent, respectively, voiced mostly negative or mixed views on the digital revolution’s impact on their personal privacy. The people who worry the most also tended to be more pessimistic about the benefits that technology may bring to their lives.