Today’s gloomy mood is centred on smartphones and social media, which took off a decade ago. Yet concerns that humanity has taken a technological wrong turn, or that particular technologies might be doing more harm than good, have arisen before. In the 1970s the despondency was prompted by concerns about overpopulation, environmental damage and the prospect of nuclear immolation. The 1920s witnessed a backlash against cars, which had earlier been seen as a miraculous answer to the affliction of horse-drawn vehicles— which filled the streets with noise and dung, and caused congestion and accidents. And the blight of industrialisation was decried in the 19th century by Luddites, Romantics and socialists, who worried (with good reason) about the displacement of skilled artisans, the despoiling of the countryside and the suffering of factory hands toiling in smoke-belching mills.
Stand back, and in each of these historical cases disappointment arose from a mix of unrealised hopes and unforeseen consequences. Technology unleashes the forces of creative destruction, so it is only natural that it leads to anxiety; for any given technology its drawbacks sometimes seem to outweigh its benefits. When this happens with several technologies at once, as today, the result is a wider sense of techno-pessimism.
However, that pessimism can be overdone. Too often people focus on the drawbacks of a new technology while taking its benefits for granted. Worries about screen time should be weighed against the much more substantial benefits of ubiquitous communication and the instant access to information and entertainment that smartphones make possible. A further danger is that Luddite efforts to avoid the short-term costs associated with a new technology will end up denying access to its longterm benefits—something Carl Benedikt Frey, an Oxford academic, calls a “technology trap”. Fears that robots will steal people’s jobs may prompt politicians to tax them, for example, to discourage their use. Yet in the long run countries that wish to maintain their standard of living as their workforce ages and shrinks will need more robots, not fewer.