When Technology Is Too Advanced

GPS is universally loved, but the possibility of driverless cars has people scared.

A prototype of Google's self-driving vehicle (Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters)

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 smart watch 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.