It’s a familiar tale to hear a mother explaining to her crying child that the loud noise caused by the storm is a thing called thunder. People tend to be scared of things they don’t understand.
You can thank evolution for these circumstances. To our ancestors, the unknown meant certain danger, and danger should be avoided at all costs.
Feats of engineering are typically met with hyperbolic fears. While they may not be baseless, these fears derive from a lack of understanding, just like children with thunderstorms.
A lack of understanding then becomes a lack of trust. It’s hard to trust developments in engineering or technology if there’s a question of safety. When humans feel a threat to their safety, they become hesitant to stray from what feels comfortable. Thus, the adoption or acceptance of something foreign and new is met with a strong, natural resistance.
New technology has always been scary. I would argue that technology now isn’t any scarier than it was before. History is littered with examples of inventions being dismissed by the sharpest minds of their time.
Only years before Marshal Ferdinand Foch became the Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies in WWI, he was quoted as saying, “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.”
A respected 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics named Paul Kugman once said in 1998, “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”
We can acknowledge the hilarity of these statements in hindsight, but history is well known for repeating itself. These innovations went on to prove their critics wrong. In fact, many successful inventions we can’t imagine our lives without endured plenty of public ridicule.
The Brooklyn Bridge was built 140 years ago, making its claim to fame as the first steel wire suspension bridge, and first bridge built on the East River. At the time, it was also the longest suspension bridge in the world. Despite its impressive stature, innovative engineering, and beautiful design, it was not enough to convince the public of its safety.
To address the wavering public trust of the structure, the City of New York took a unique approach. On May 17, 1884, PT Barnum, a famed circus owner, marched 21 elephants and 17 camels across the Brooklyn Bridge to display the strength of the new build.
The lesson learned: Trust needs to be a comprehensible object. It wasn’t until a large crowd saw the spectacle with their own eyes that they knew the bridge was safe. It is not enough to tell the public something new is safe or explain how it works, you have to earn their trust by showing them.
Elevators date back to Ancient Greece when they began as a simple pulley system. They were not always seen as a transportation device, however. They were widely used for construction before they were even thought to be used for people.
Although passenger elevators have been around since the 1850s, they have gone through several iterations to address passenger skepticism. The first version of commercial elevators were manually operated. Over time, engineers added safety bumpers, automatic stopping, and then eventually created “driverless” elevators. Elevators got faster, smoother, and safer.
Flash forward to today, elevators aren't just a convenience, they’re essential with modern architecture – not to mention accessibility. It took over 100 years for elevators to be a ubiquitous solution to traveling within tall buildings. But why such a strong consumer resistance? Because safety is our number one priority. Until the invention was streamlined, doubt was cast over its tremendous benefits.
Even inventions as helpful and simple as umbrellas were met with disdain. The first Englishman to tout an umbrella was ridiculed, stared at, and pelted with trash. In the early 1700s, Jonas Hanway returned from France carrying around an umbrella in London. Although umbrellas were quite popular among the noble class in France, the new rain protection device was seen as feminine and “Too French”. Englishmen of the 18th-century were not to be seen with such a great sign of weakness.
A waterproof and retractable version of a woman’s parasol – while smart – was also perceived as a threat to business for “taxis”, aka horse-drawn carriages. By the time of his death in 1786, umbrellas became a widespread weather solution throughout the country.
Sometimes it’s not enough to have early adopters to new technology. When confronted with the unfamiliar, people tend to fall back on the status quo to make them feel safe and comfortable. We will change if we believe the change will be beneficial to us, but peer influence is a much stronger contributing factor.
It’s normal to be skeptical of new inventions or feats of engineering. From a consumer’s perspective, especially in the digital age, skepticism is a knee-jerk reaction to the flashiest new thing that’s brought to market. If consumers don’t know what to trust and why to trust it, they often choose to stay away.
Change feels like a personal loss because we are hardwired to resist change. Perhaps not of money or friends, but of security. Our comfort zones are an evolutionary precaution.
We may be fearful of self-driving cars and AI now, but much of what we doubt today will become integrated into the lives of generations to come. Technology must be perceived (and proven) as useful and safe before it can be trusted and adopted into everyday life.