Man vs. Machine; Advancing Technology Feeds Fears about Control

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Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

David Kupfer, an independent psychologist who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, just ended a two-year period of hanging up on people.

Mr. Kupfer was not trying to be rude. Instead, he admits, he is a bit of a technophobe, "relatively uneducated about a lot of technology, whether it's a computer or a cell phone," he says.

His habit of hang-ups was triggered by the call-waiting feature on his cellular phone. He only recently read the phone's manual to learn how to switch between two callers.

"A lot of technophobes fear a loss of control. I'm one of them," says Mr. Kupfer, who has a practice in Falls Church.

Technophobia, a generalized fear of technology, is not recognized in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM, used by psychiatrists and psychologists, describes phobias as a type of anxiety. The response is one of terror, dread or panic when the feared object, situation or activity is encountered, the association says.

A few local psychologists and college instructors consider technophobia to be a true phobia, while others insist it is an attitude or belief. Either way, the information technology and computer industries are making technology easier to use.

According to Kathy Hogan Bruen, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and is the senior director of prevention for the National Mental Health Association, a phobia is a persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear brought on by the presence of or thoughts about the source of the fear. Exposure to the source can cause an immediate anxiety response, an urgent sense of needing to get out of the situation or a panic attack, she says.

Technophobia occurs when people fear interacting with a new technology. Technophobes can worry, fear loss of control and experience physical agitation, such as muscle tension, rapid heart rate and sweating, Mr. Kupfer says.

"The presence of anxiety would be the difference between fearing and not liking technology," he says.

Technophobes may be afraid of breaking what they are using or doing something wrong and looking stupid, says Dianne Martin, professor of computer science at George Washington University in Northwest. She holds a doctorate in education.

Clinical psychologist Michael Jolkovski, however, doubts that technophobia is a clinical disorder involving a phobic response to technology, except possibly in the cases of guns or airplanes, he says.

"I just haven't seen cases where anxiety of technology was impeding somebody's life or career," says Mr. Jolkovski, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology. He has an independent practice in Falls Church and is a member of the clinical faculty at the GWU Center for Professional Psychology.

Instead, a person may feel anxious about using technology, have performance anxiety and fear mastering it or be mistrustful and suspicious of it, Mr. Jolkovski says.

"A person with a true-blue phobia feels as though they cannot face the feared thing, or can do so only at the cost of suffering debilitating levels of panic or anxiety," he says. "Technophobia refers to attitudes of fear or suspicion toward technology held by an individual or culture."

The Luddites of the Industrial Revolution are an example. In the early 19th century, they feared new machines would displace workers, but they did not fear the actual machines. As such, weavers from Europe rejected equipment that allowed factories to mass-produce products inferior in quality to their handmade products. …