In the past couple of decades, anti-technology has become something of a trendy national political movement, especially among journalists, politicians, academics and other intellectuals. But a new survey says the vast majority of Americans are profoundly optimistic about the next century, and technology is the reason why.
Technology has become the national conversation since the explosion of networked computing the Net and the Web; a central political and social issue, reality that splits the country into distinct camps: those who look forward to the future, and those who don't.
The subject has become so important that it increasingly plays a dominant role not only in how people feel about machines themselves, but about what lies ahead.
Americans used to be unequivocally upbeat about technology. "If you can dream it, you can do it," was one of Walt Disney's favorite exhortations to his beloved corps of Imagineers.
"When I visited the General Motors Futurama Exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, I believed that I was truly looking at 'The World Of Tomorrow,'" wrote Samuel Florman, the engineer/author, in "The Existential Pleasures of Engineering."
Florman remembers believing that he was literally looking at the "World of Tomorrow" and that it was a better place. "It would have to be," he recalls, "with its superhighways, its sleek cars, and its sparkling cities."
Americans are vastly more sophisticated about technology now, wary and perhaps chastened by the tidal wave of new technologies and their often unforeseen consequences. Superhighways, sleek cars and sparkling cities all came to pass, but so did pollution, congestion, noise crime and enormous social dislocation.
Although the rise of computing suggests worries about technology is a relatively modern concern, it really isn't. Benjamin Franklin was a geek through and through, and he always understood that technology was a mixed blessing, bringing both triumphs and unpleasant surprises.
In more recent times, amateur technologists like Disney were sometimes drawn into Utopianism, convinced that technology alone held the key to a brighter tomorrow.
Judging by the moral outrage and near hysteria about technics in modern politics and media - cracking, Y2K, pornography, perversion, isolation, addiction - it might seem that Americans had completely abandoned the idea that technology could, in fact, herald a brighter future.
That assumption would be wrong.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center on how Americans feel about the 21st Century shows they are profoundly optimistic about the future, and technology is the primary reason why.
According to Pew's nationwide survey, a staggering 81 per cent of adults are optimistic about what the 21st Century holds for them, and 70 per cent believe the country as a whole will do well. Eight in ten Americans describe themselves as hopeful about the year 2000. A significant majority anticipate that the new millenium will usher in the triumph of science and technology over some of humanity's most enduring plagues and problems, from AIDS and cancer to environmental degradation.
Americans' view of the promise of technology, in fact, is distinctly brighter than their feelings about their fellow human beings. Nearly two-thirds of Americans anticipate a serious terrorist attack on the United States within the next 50 years, and more than half say an epidemic worse than AIDS is likely. Significant numbers expect a major earthquake in California, foresee increased global warming and predict a severe energy crisis by the middle of the 21st century.
What's striking about the survey is that although Americans expect some problems to worsen, their overall outlook about the future remains optimistic. And technology is the reason. Americans believe that science and technology will expand their horizons, create a better future for them, provide longer lives, even allow routine space travel.
Americans, the survey demonstrates, are forming their own views of technology, apart from the moral outrage expressed by so many public figures about a host of techno-driven social plagues, and the cost, inefficiency, intrusiveness of technology in general. Perhaps as a result of their newfound ability to access information and opinions via the Net and Web, Americans are becoming more rational and far-sighted than their elected representatives.
Fewer than half of the respondents now believe a Messiah will return to the Earth in the 21st Century, for instance, but but 81 per cent believe cancer will be cured.
As Florman, a civil engineer, and other writers about technology have pointed out, anti-technology has become something of a national movement among the so-called intelligentsia in American life. Intellectuals often fear that new technologies - from the Internet to cable TV and cell phones - are dumbing down the young, isolating individuals and destroying traditional notions of civilization, literacy and culture.
Some of these attitudes arose during the 60s, when technology got the blame for creating nuclear weapons, napalm and other lethal killing devices, and for de-spoiling the environment. The explosive growth of the Internet - which has freed up so much information and endangers the privileged positions and monopoly over information formerly held by politicians, journalists, stockbrokers and academics - has generated even more unease about technology.
Lawyers worry that the public will access their own legal documents on the Web. Doctors fret about the sudden dissemination of medical information. Journalists worry about who will vouch for the accuracy of information, political scientists fear an anarchic electorate, which votes instantly and without knowledge or deliberation, and academics are traumatized by the notion that slobs in Kansas with computers and modems will get to pass their ideas around, too.
But technology is, in fact, an idea whose time has come. It's no longer the exclusive province of engineers, geeks and nerds either. The Net has brought tens of millions of Americans into very personal contact with technology as a powerful social and economic force and political tool. So far, at least, and despite its many problems and flaws, they like it.