When the personal computer first became ubiquitous in the 1980s, as Adrienne LaFrance wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year, some people found it so terrifying that the term “computerphobia” was coined.
“In the early days of the telephone, people wondered if the machines might be used to communicate with the dead. Today, it is the smartphone that has people jittery,” she wrote. “Humans often converge around massive technological shifts—around any change, really—with a flurry of anxieties.”
To see those anxieties quantified, take a look at the top five scariest items in the Survey of American Fears, released earlier this week by researchers at Chapman University. Three of them—cyberterrorism, corporate tracking of personal information, and government tracking of personal information—were technology-related.
For the survey, a random sample of around 1,500 adults ranked their fears of 88 different items on a scale of one (not afraid) to four (very afraid). The fears were divided into 10 different categories: crime, personal anxieties (like clowns or public speaking), judgment of others, environment, daily life (like romantic rejection or talking to strangers), technology, natural disasters, personal future, man-made disasters, and government—and when the study authors averaged out the fear scores across all the different categories, technology came in second place, right behind natural disasters.
“People tend to express the highest level of fear for things they’re dependent on but that they don’t have any control over, and that’s almost a perfect definition of technology,” said Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman and one of the co-authors of the study. “You can no longer make it in society without using technology you don’t understand to buy things at a store, to talk to other people, to conduct business. People are increasingly dependent, but they don’t have any idea how these things actually work.”
Fears also tend to partially reflect the news cycle, Bader explained: It makes sense, in the middle of presidential-campaign season, that government corruption would top the list. Similarly, the recent hacks at Sony and Ashley Madison have likely made people worry more about whether their personal data is safe.
“Lower levels of fear can be beneficial, can make people make better choices,” Bader said. (If you’re afraid of your personal data getting compromised, maybe don’t make your password “password,” for example.) But, “higher levels of fear can be very detrimental.” (If you’re afraid of your data being compromised, you probably shouldn’t smash your laptop and go live in the woods.)
Here’s the oddest thing about the data, though: Start at the top of the list of fears and scroll down, all the way past reptiles and robots replacing the workforce and overpopulation—and there at number 43, almost smack-dab in the middle of the list, is death (21.9 percent), sandwiched between loneliness and theft.
“Corporate tracking of personal data,” to put that in perspective, rang in at 44.6 percent.
“It’s part of the complicated nature of fear,” Bader said. “When people respond to how much they fear something, part of it is them responding to, ‘How horrible would this thing be if it happened to me?’ and part of it is, ‘How likely is it to happen to me?”
“Everybody would recognize that if they were about to be murdered, that would be a terrifying and horrible thing,” he continued, “but people have different senses of whether that would happen to them. Technology is more universal. It’s difficult for anyone to get by without it.”