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When High Technology Equals High Anxiety. . .

July 29, 1993|BEVERLY BEYETTE

Do you panic when confronted by a coffee maker that thinks? Do you wish talking gadgets would just shut up?

You may be suffering from technophobia.

Technophobes don't care about interactive megachannel TV or the Information Highway--a computer network that will someday link everything to everything.

A husband-wife team, Cal State Dominguez Hills psychology professor Larry Rosen and Michelle Weil, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Chapman University, Orange, have been studying and treating technophobia for nine years.

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Question: Will you define it?

Rosen: It's a general discomfort with technology--computers, VCRs, microwaves, cassette recorders.

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Question: You've written about anxious technophobes, cognitive technophobes and uncomfortable users. How do they differ?

Rosen: If I gave an anxious technophobe a new coffee maker with all these little digital readouts and said, 'Set yourself up for in the morning,' his palms might get sweaty, his heart would probably start to race, he'd probably break out in a cold sweat and his mind would go blank.

A cognitive, or thinking, technophobe would just start bombarding himself or herself with messages: "I can't do it! The manual's too complicated. Gosh, I think the dishes need washing. . . ."

Uncomfortable users might feel a little nervous, talk to themselves, maybe have some negative thoughts about the role of digital coffee makers in society.

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Question: Can a technophobe be cured?

Weil: We can take a person like you, like myself, who wouldn't go near this stuff, deal very systematically with the underlying concerns and free that person up to embrace technology.

First, people must understand that they're not alone. Technophobes tend to self-isolate. You need to ask a friend to walk you through this thing. But don't do it by following the manual. Manuals frighten everybody. And don't do it at 7:30 when you want to record a show at 8. Deadline pressure is deadly.

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Question: Which machines are the most common offenders?

Rosen: Home computers are probably No. 1. Lots of people buy a computer and never use it. They'll throw a sheet over it and use it as a plant stand. CD players really upset people. Also, the part of the microwave that goes beyond simply pushing 55 seconds and "start".

People will rearrange their schedule so they don't have to use the ATM at the bank. Others wait up until midnight to set the VCR. Then, all they have to do is push the record button. Most people can figure that out.

Technophobes take little steps around technology, either learning just enough to get by--like one program on their word processor--or learning to avoid it.

But every day something new comes out. Now there's a digital range finder for finding fish. You hold it over the water, it sends sonic sound waves down and shows you a picture of the fish. It would make a technophobe really nervous.

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Question: Do some people think if they just ignore technology, it'll go away?

Weil: There are people who believe they themselves can ignore it and it'll never come back to haunt them. That's unfortunate, with all the pressure toward technologizing our society.

Rosen: I don't think you'll be able to escape it. Essentially, your television will be the center of everything. Your VCR will be built into it, your telephone, your fax machine, your newspaper.

Weil: You can't buy a microwave that has just ON-OFF. It's almost as though simplified technology is going to become the new dinosaur.

You have to be kind of an explorer scout, as opposed to thinking the machine is going to get you if you push the wrong button. You've got to be willing to play around, to say, 'Oh, gee, let's see what happens if . . .'

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Question: Why are otherwise intelligent people terrified of these machines?

Rosen: The machine takes on a much bigger image than just that of a machine. We've asked people to draw what they think the inside of a computer looks like. You get monsters. You get lots of little wires running around, little people running around.

The computer part that drives most of these pieces of technology is only this big. That scares people, to think that something that tiny is making their coffee in the morning or handling their money at the bank.

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Question: I suppose the Nintendo generation understands all of this stuff?

Rosen: That's a myth. There are just as many technophobic kids as there are technophobic adults. It's a very small segment that's playing Nintendo. I think technology is going to create haves and have-nots, a polarization based on income, social status, availability.

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Question: How widespread is technophobia? Is is global?

Rosen: Probably one in three Americans. We just finished a study of 3,500 students in 23 countries. Israel has the least technophobes, only about 10%. Singapore was second. Both are very highly technological societies. Two other countries were ahead of the United States.

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Question: Can technophobia be caught from parents or teachers?

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