Our lives have changed immeasurably in the past 100 years.
Think of the wealthiest, most powerful person 100 years ago. It was probably John D. Rockefeller. In inflation-adjusted terms he is the wealthiest businessman in history. He had something like $320 billion in today’s dollars. That’s more than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett combined. Much more.
Few of us want to give up the tech that was missing during the lifetime of John D. Rockefeller. No iPhone, no central air conditioning, no heating, etc. We won’t do it.
He could afford every luxury available. For example, he had his own private trains which would be like having a fleet of private jets today. He had mansions in New York and an amazing villa in Florida. He had everything money could buy.
But he didn’t have many things that you and I take for granted. He obviously didn’t have an iPhone or a computer or a safety razor or TV or even radio in 1917. He didn’t have many of the things that are standard for us today. When the weather was hot, he was hot. When it was cold, he was colder than we are today. When he got sick he had much, much worse odds of being cured than we do.
In fact, if you take the average citizen of Barcelona, where I live, and compare their lifestyle to Rockefeller’s on the things that matter to us today you’ll find that the Barcelones is better off. Jordi (the most common name in Barcelona) is living a better life than the richest man in the world did just 100 years ago.
Most of those improvements in Jordi’s life have come from advances in technology, or, described another way, tools we make to improve our lives.
New technology has been a rising tide that has lifted all boats. But it has mainly benefitted the average person. Yes, wealthy people get new tech first but that advantage is short lived. Basic market forces push tech to go mainstream quickly. Tech is expensive to build and needs as big a market as possible to generate a healthy return on investment. That means technological advances “want” to be used by everyone.
All of this is to the good. Few of us want to give up the tech that was missing during the lifetime of Rockefeller. No iPhone, no central air conditioning, no heating, etc. We won’t do it.
Yet, each technological advance — despite tech’s history of improving our lives — meets a giant wall of resistance.
Why? Because we are afraid of the “new.”
As long as we have been creating tools (since the Stone Age) we have been afraid of things that we don’t understand. Fear is much more deeply embedded in our biology and much more powerful than our desire to create new tools.
Our fear has kept us alive by giving us a shot of adrenaline and making us run from things we don’t understand. Imagine you are on the African savannah and you see a dark shadow rustling in a bush. Our ancestors had an immediate fear response and ran. There were other people who were more curious and open minded. They got eaten before they could breed. They didn’t pass on their DNA to you.
Fear has a privileged place in the core, lizard part of the brain. The amygdala is the biological seat of our fear reaction. It can move us — fast.
Higher-order thinking that happens in the neocortex takes much longer by comparison. It is the newer part of our brain. It requires a lot more energy. That is the part of the brain that develops new technology.
I grew up in a macho culture in Spain that rejected fear. One word: bullfighter.
But the fact is that we are afraid all of the time — and of everything. I biked to work this morning. I felt fear about each car that crept into my lane, other bikers, etc. It was a “fear fest.” That doesn’t mean that I was disabled by the fear. It only means that fear is constantly present, trying to keep us alive.
As someone who builds new technology for a living I’m very aware of the ambivalence that people feel. On the one hand, in the neocortex, we want tools that improve our lives. On the other hand, in the amygdala, fear says, “run away.” Our first thought when we encounter new technology is often this: “How will this hurt me?”
Recently I was in Tempe, Ariz., for a conference. I suspect many readers will remember being there. Or, based on the alcohol consumption, readers will at least remember booking flights and a painful ride home. The rest may be fuzzy.
I was looking forward to taking a ride in one of Uber’s self-driving cars in Tempe. They are Volvo XC90’s. These SUVs are the safest model of the safest brand of car. I can tell you the decision to go with the Volvo XC90 was not made casually. Uber knows it needs to deal with people’s fear first.
Halfway through my stay in Tempe all the self-driving cars disappeared from my app. What had happened? This had happened ... an accident.
My first thought was that a self-driving car had gone out of control and killed someone. Then I looked more closely at the picture. The grill was untouched. That was suspicious. I scanned the news. It turns out that the other car — the human driven car — had failed to yield. The human driver hit the self-driving car.
That wasn’t my first assumption. And that was not how the media played it. You don’t get many clicks with this headline, “Human driver hits another car.” That’s a familiar story. Not news. The media played the story as if the self-driving car had hit the human driven car. Why? It feeds into our narrative about new technology, that it is dangerous and scary. The amygdala loves that kind of story.
How do we overcome this inter-brain rivalry? As technologists it’s our responsibility to recognize and deal with fear first. We create great advances that will improve the lives of everyone. Each day we make the past look more barbaric and primitive. Our grandchildren will look back with sympathy on Bill Gates’s caveman ways.
But to get our new technology adopted by amygdala-equipped humans we need to deal with fear. It’s been with us forever and it’s not going away. Even though our lives have changed beyond recognition in the last 100 years our biology hasn’t changed in millennia.
Thierry Arrondo is the managing director of Vendo, which develops artificial intelligence systems that allow merchants to dynamically set prices for each unique shopper.