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Thursday, December 25, 1997 Published at 10:51 GMT

Special Report

Is technology taking over the world?

Even if you can tell one end of photocopier from the other, chances are that you will know someone who breaks out in a cold sweat at even a mention of the word "computer".

Increasing numbers of people are finding themselves without a clue when it comes to modern technology and often they are helpless victims of "technophobia", unable to even program their video recorder.

[ image: For some people sitting at a computer is a nightmare of fear and bewilderment]
For some people sitting at a computer is a nightmare of fear and bewilderment
If this condition afflicts you, or your nearest and dearest, take heart. Scientists are now saying that technophobia is their fault. It has been created by bad design and poor education, both of which can be remedied.

The Luddites

Historically machines have often been viewed with suspicion, even outright hostility.

In 1779 A young weaver named Ned Ludd broke into a workshop and smashed up the latest in the state of the art textile machines. At the time he was hailed as a hero by fellow workers who feared machines might take away their livelihoods.

[ image: Early computers took up whole rooms]
Early computers took up whole rooms
A couple of hundred years later, the computer turned up. These were once huge machines that took up whole rooms. The early machines inspired science fiction writers, such as Arthur C Clark, to invent his fictional mainframe HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Computers were transformed into science fiction villains wresting control from humans and becoming imprinted on our consciousness as technological bogeymen.

Brave new world

Companies like Nortel (NorthernTelecom) believe it is their mission to to end the perception that technology is scary, they want to make it accessible and user friendly. Ian Vance, chief engineer at Nortel, predicts that we will all get more used to technology as it takes on a greater role in our own homes.

"The house of the future will have invisible technology in it ... it is going to be working for you but not visible. The car has a lot of computers in it that do functions but they are not visible. The house of the future will use technology in the same way, there's already a chip in your washing machine," he said.

But Brian Mulligan, Managing Director of the company Easynet, which provides access to the internet, believes that James Bond style home gadgets that run your bath and cook your tea are not the real future of technology. Not surprisingly he believes the Internet is far more important.

"The Internet is something quite different, in that you can apply it, it is the application of technology which makes its different. You shouldn't be scared of technology. Technology once it finds a real application will become user friendly for you ... you don't need to change, the technology will come to you rather than you going to the technology." he said.

Medical condition

[ image: Young people have had more exposure to technology]
Young people have had more exposure to technology
Some people think that technophobia is entirely age related and if you were born the right side of 1970 you should have no problems.

But Professor Bob Stone, an expert on virtual reality from the company Virtual Presence, said he believes there really is a medical condition called "technophobia":

"At the first level we have a mind set which is really brought about by a lack of education and a lack of awareness about what technology and particularly about what home computers can do.

"On the other hand there is a small proportion of the population who are really paranoid about PC's, so it is medical condition rather than anything else, ...but that is a very small proportion," he said.

Professor Stone said the blame for this fear can be attributed to those who design the interface between humans and computers. He points to developments like virtual reality, in which we "exploit" attributes we were born with like eye movements and head movements, as they way we will interact with technology in the future.

"We shouldn't have to adapt to the technology, the technology should be designed with us in mind," he said.

Professor Stone also said that we need to reduce our use and reliance on technological jargon, which often alienates and confuses people.

Part man, part machine

Justin Mullins, technology editor of the New Scientist, predicts a future where we will be a lot more physically involved with technology.

[ image:  ]
" It's not just a question of being left behind by technology, but by being taken over by it. We already have people who wander round with small computers implanted into their bodies. Cochlea implants are ways that you can use technology to improve your hearing, and there are people who are working on implanting silicon chips into the eyes for people whose retina's have died out," he said.

"Other people are working on plugging a visual input directly into the brain for people whose optics nerves don't work . "

All these developments are still at the very early stages, but many of us, even technophobes, use computers every day without a second thought. As well as sitting on our laps or on our desks they also help us to get money from the bank or use a credit card.

The future may look bright for technological whizz kids, but die hard luddites can be happy in the knowledge that even some of their opponents sometimes question the all pervasive power of the computer.

Eugene Lacey, Editor of ZD-Net, an online technology magazine, said: "People need to realise that computers are not nearly as clever as very many people would have you believe, in many ways computers are essentially stupid devices..."


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