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Avoiding Technology

The most rationally made things can inspire irrational fears.

Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - Phobias tend to defy logic; techno-phobia is no exception. One of the most pleasurable consequences of accepting speaking invitations is visiting and learning about different campuses and the people who teach and engage in research on them. Some experiences are full of surprises.

I recently visited an institution entirely new to me. Naturally, my itinerary consisted of a lot of names and locations that were unfamiliar, and so I had a helpful and necessary guide to take me from one appointment to the next.

As we entered the stately administration building where my first scheduled meeting was to take place, my escort asked if I preferred to take the stairs, which were straight ahead and numerous, or the elevator up to my appointment. Without hesitation, I expressed my wish, and we went out of our way to catch the elevator.

As we walked to the back corner of the building, we made small talk acknowledging that we both knew taking the stairs was more healthful for us and for the environment, but I explained that I had gotten in late the previous night and had a long day ahead of me. The spirit was willing, but the flesh and bones were weak.

As we were riding the elevator, my escort told me that he was glad we were not in the mechanical engineering building, because he did not feel comfortable taking its elevator. He explained that he could never know for sure what those mechanical engineering students and professors might have done to it in the name of an experiment.

By way of further explanation, he told me that he never drank from a water fountain in the chemical engineering building, because he did not know what chemicals might have been added to the water. I could see how there might be concern about what could find its way into a laboratory drain, but how could that reach the water fountain? Perhaps my guide feared that someone might experiment with piping connections.

Rather than risk seeming to be an ungrateful visitor by challenging his fears, I asked my guide whether he would use a computer in the computer science department, which was also part of the college of engineering at this university. His response was that he was afraid to check his E-mail on such a computer.

Growing more curious about this expanding list of phobias, I asked what he would avoid in the civil engineering building. He answered, without hesitation, that he preferred to stay out of that building altogether. Who knows what those civil engineers could do tinkering around with the entire structure?

I suspected that my guide was just pulling my leg and trying to be entertaining, but the experience did make me wonder about the kinds of things that can be irrationally associated with engineers, engineering, and technology generally.

My desk dictionary defines technophobia as a “fear or dislike of advanced technology or complex devices and esp. computers” and dates this sense of the word to 1965. Since this was long before the advent of the personal computer, the word must have been coined in response to the products of computers rather than to their direct use. In other words, the phobia had its origins in the unfamiliarity of the thing rather than in the thing itself.

Phobias tend to be irrational, and technophobia is no exception. But, ironically, it represents an irrational fear of the products of some of humankind’s most rational thinking.

Had I thought of this, I might have asked my escort what he avoided in the building that housed his department, expecting him to reply, “Nothing.” As it turned out, he worked for the administration. His store of technological horror stories evidently came from listening to faculty members who had been pulling his leg.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book is The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.




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