American faith in technology is high, but our faith in weather control is low — and we're very worried about designer babies and Google Glass. The Pew Research Center, whose surveys we've frequently cited when talking about present-day cellphone and internet use, has produced one of its most forward-looking reports yet: an opinion poll of how Americans see the future. Common wisdom sometimes presents us as simultaneously addicted to our gadgets and deeply technophobic, fearing everything from vaccines to sexting. Our actual overall opinion of technology is optimistic, but once we look at individual technologies and demographics, the seams start to show.
22 percent of Americans say we'll "definitely" have lab-grown organs by 2064
A majority of Americans, albeit not a huge one, believe that technological change will lead to a future where our lives are mostly better. 59 percent of the 1,001 adults interviewed by landline and cellphone agreed with that statement, while 30 percent believed that future would be "mostly worse." And we largely believe that at least a few major advances are coming in the next 50 years. 81 percent believed that we would be able to grow custom organs in a lab for transplants; 22 percent thought that it would "definitely happen" and 60 percent thought it would "probably happen." 51 percent thought that computers would become "as effective as people" at creating music, movies, novels, and paintings. The standard, dry Pew report tone sounds downright judgmental when talking about the limits of our faith: researchers say that "just" one in five Americans think we'll control the weather by 2064. In all fairness, though, it is slightly surprising that we're much more likely to expect teleportation (39 percent) and long term off-planet colonies (33 percent).
Despite our categorical optimism about "technology," it turns out that we're sometimes more conservative about things that are actually on the horizon. 63 percent of Americans, for example, think that it would be a change for the worse if US airspace was opened to "personal and commercial drones." 22 percent thought it would be a change for the better. 65 percent don't like the idea of having robots care for the elderly and infirm, while 28 percent thought it would be a change for the better. 66 percent think that it would be a bad thing if parents could alter a child's DNA "to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring," compared to 26 percent in support. The most popular advance was a world where "most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them," which 53 percent thought would be a change for the worse and 37 percent thought would be an improvement.
Optimism, it turns out, is the territory of wealthy men
If the future is here but not evenly distributed, neither are our opinions about it. Optimism, it turns out, is the territory of wealthy, educated men. Despite our stereotypes about age and technological acceptance, people over 65 were only a few percentage points less likely to say that technological changes would make the world better. People with a college education were about 10 percent more likely to agree with that statement, and the more money you made, the likelier you were to see a bright future. Race wasn't specified in the results. But the biggest gap was in gender. 67 percent of men thought that technology would lead to a better future, but barely over half of women did — they were the least optimistic demographic group, slightly under Americans in the lowest income bracket. It's not that these groups were pessimistic about tech, they were just much less optimistic.
Women also opposed some very specific technologies. Genders had roughly equal opinions on most of the "controversial" technologies, but while men were evenly split on the implications of wearable tech, 59 percent of women thought it would change things for the worse. Women are subject to harassment and invasive, covert photography in a way that men aren't, and for all its benefits, communications technology has created networks that support and condone the practice, while raising the stakes significantly.
As a whole, though, this doesn't necessarily mean that we'll reject future technology. Pew acknowledges that it asked questions specifically about "controversial technological developments," and a word like "drone," because of its early association with military surveillance and killing aircraft, isn't likely to evoke positive emotions even when applied to less powerful non-military devices. Attitudes towards once-controversial technologies can also change once they actually become widespread. Another Pew survey from last year charted the rise of online dating, a practice once seen as odd at best and risky at worst, and found a marked increase in acceptance and familiarity. And despite our concerns about social networks and privacy, we haven't stopped using them.
What future tech would you want to own?
This survey, though, also found mixed responses to less controversial technology that's being prototyped or planned today. Only 20 percent of Americans would eat meat grown in a lab, with 78 percent saying they'd refuse; very few didn't know. 26 percent would install a brain implant to improve "memory and mental capacity," with 72 percent declining — apparently we'd rather have something embedded in our brain's delicate flesh than eat synthetic food. Driverless cars, a technology much closer to fruition, was almost an even split: 48 percent would do it, and 50 percent wouldn't. Some technological advances are only supported in hindsight: response to the Apollo program during the 1960s, for example, was downright tepid according to polls of the time. Nonetheless, most people apparently aren't eagerly awaiting the fruits of Google X.
Almost all of the survey's responses were set by Pew. But one final question simply asked the thing that people have been debating for decades: what "futuristic invention" would you most like to own? The responses were encouragingly varied. Plenty of Americans picked better transportation options, including the ever-popular personal spacecraft and jetpack. A tiny percentage picked "world peace" and "stop wars," which this reporter concludes could count as futuristic inventions. A disappointing amount either didn't know (28 percent) or had no interest in future tech (11 percent). The most popular single answers (not categories), though, were time travel and increased health and longevity. A lot of us, it turns out, just want to be around for the next big thing.