The Rhetoric of Technopanics And Why It Matters

As Hume famously stated, reason is slave to the passions, but this is not just a nice metaphor, it is reality. Rationality is built on top of, around, and integrated with emotion. In turn, that emotion is embodied, it is physical. When we talk of love, we talk about falling in love or having butterflies in our stomach. We use bodily metaphors to talk about complex emotions. In employing these ideas, we situate ourselves in the world and find our footing.

This is why the rhetoric of technopanics is so powerful. It is built on disrupting the ground below us.

What is a technopanic? Adam Thierer, who has done extensive work on this subject, places the idea under the umbrella of moral panics. Since “a moral panic occurs when a segment of society believes that the behavior or moral choices of others within that society poses a significant risk to the society as a whole,” a technopanic is simply a moral panic that centers around a specific technology.

What’s a contemporary example? This Atlantic article titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” serves as a prime example.

In building out the theory of technopanics, Theier cites Intel researcher Genevieve Bell, who has built on Stanley Cohen’s original work in this space. Some technologies can more easily lead to panic as compared to others. As explained in a recent Wired article, “Bell specified three areas to watch. If a new media technology affects our relationship with time, space and each other, then panic conditions are ripe.”

Linguists will notice right away the importance of these categories, often described as deixis. Deixis are those words that provide context about a person’s position in relation to her world, the people, and objects in it. Personal deixis locates some other entity in relation to the speaker, like he, she, and it. Spatial deixis locates the context of the speech within space. The typical example of spatial deixis includes this, that, or there. Lastly, temporal deixis localises some utterance within time, for example, whenever we use the term now or then or afterward. Clearly, these terms help to provide context to what we say. If you want to do a deeper dive on the topic, check out Indiana University’s Professor Mike Gasser’s review.

Since language is embodied, the categories of deixis provide grounding to our communication. They work in concert. Pulling it all together, Bell’s theory has even more purchase, since she argues that technopanics are driven by worries of time, space and each other, the categories noted above. Quite literally, the rhetoric of panics suggest that our grounding will shake beneath us.

Thus, it should come as no surprise in the Atlantic article that the author laments, “But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever.”

What about our relationship to time, you might ask? Again, the Atlantic article provides an example: “Across a range of behaviors — drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised — 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school.”

More subtle are those worries about interpersonal changes, the third part of Bell’s triad. Yet, it is noted that, “The allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents.”

Metaphor is not just cheap talk, it forms the basis of understanding and communication. Arguments that induce fear about technology often use deixis categories because then we become disoriented. For those of us who want a firm grounding, who want to understand the world around us, and who want to help our children cope with the real world, we should be keenly aware of those who use technopanic based rhetoric to confound.

Senior Research Fellow | Center for Growth and Opportunity | @WillRinehart

Senior Research Fellow | Center for Growth and Opportunity | @WillRinehart