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The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics (2020)

Posted on:
May 17, 2022


"Widespread concerns about new technologies—whether they be novels, radios, or smartphones—are repeatedly found throughout history. Although tales of past panics are often met with amusement today, current concerns routinely engender large research investments and policy debate. What we learn from studying past technological panics, however, is that these investments are often inefficient and ineffective.

What causes technological panics to repeatedly reincarnate?

And why does research routinely fail to address them?

To answer such questions, I examined the network of political, population, and academic factors driving the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics. In this cycle, psychologists are encouraged to spend time investigating new technologies, and how they affect children and young people, to calm a worried population. Their endeavor, however, is rendered ineffective because of the lack of a theoretical baseline; researchers cannot build on what has been learned researching past technologies of concern. Thus, academic study seemingly restarts for each new technology of interest, which slows down the policy interventions necessary to ensure technologies are benefiting society. In this article, I highlight how the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics stymies psychology’s positive role in steering technological change and the pervasive need for improved research and policy approaches to new technologies."


"Digital technologies are presently shaping and reshaping people’s lives and how they live them; their power to do so will likely increase in the foreseeable future. High-quality scientific evidence considered within a broader historic context is needed to understand how these changes will affect people and society. It will help ensure stakeholders, such as governments, regulators, designers, programmers, parents, and digital technology  users, are equipped with the tools and information necessary to make informed decisions in caregiving, policy, and personal arenas.

With that understood, there is little reason to assume future research investigating new technologies will escape the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics without a substantial shift in conceptual and empirical approach. The lack of a linear approach in this research area—created on the basis of a societal problem, not a scientific theory—means that panics are reincarnated for every new technology that becomes popular in society. Scientific progress is slow, and the research output produced is routinely conflicting and intensely wasteful. This stymies actionable science communication and policymaking. Furthermore, technology quickly embeds itself in society, which makes it difficult to change or adapt, meaning that evidence provision needs to be as fast as possible. It is apparent from examining past technology panics that research in the area routinely fails to efficiently deliver answers to important and divisive research questions.

Being realistic, there is little impetus for the field to reflect about its own methodology and its place in the network of political, academic, and public spheres that drive this inefficient cycle. To ensure that psychology does not become an accomplice to a never-ending Sisyphean cycle of technology panics, the research area has to acknowledge the need for radical change. Psychologists need to recognize the increasingly prominent role they play in facilitating cycles of technology panics and consider whether what they are doing is bringing a net benefit to society and academia. Psychological scientists need to encourage debate about how policy can be built in a time of accelerating technological change but slow research progress. Furthermore, research practices should be adapted so that the research process does not restart when a new technology gets introduced and that  evidence is provided quickly. Reflecting, discussing, and adapting the field to address the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics can ultimately empower psychology to steer predictable public concerns about emergent  technologies into a more productive and efficient future."The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics (2020)


This article highlights how the Sisyphean cycle of technology panics stymies psychology’s positive role in steering technological change and the pervasive need for improved research and policy approaches to new technologies.