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Americans Agree: We Love Technology, but it’s Starting to Worry Us

Surprise! Americans are still optimistic about tech, social media, and big tech companies. But new research shows that we’re starting to lose trust.

As a country, we don’t talk about tech. We yell.

A few headlines you’re probably sick of reading by now:

Tech is destroying democracy, putting us in bubbles, and confusing which news is “fake.”

Tech is isolating us from each other—as we strive to be “influential” instead of emotionally close.

Big tech companies are selling our data, violating our privacy, and leaving us vulnerable to attack.

But there’s just one problem with these narratives.

Americans don’t actually feel this way.

(At least, not completely).

Believe it or not—American opinions on technology, on social media, and on big tech companies are astonishingly positive.

And we suggest you believe it—because we have data to back it up.

Here are key takeaways from a study we completed in March 2019 (or, get the full report):

  • Americans agree. Sure, some groups are a bit are more enthusiastic than others. But generally speaking—tech is a rare space where we’ve reached a consensus. Whether you voted for Clinton or Trump, whether you’re urban or rural, male or female, high income or low income—you pretty much have the same opinion on what excites you and what concerns you about technology.
  • Americans are enthusiastic about what tech does, both for us and for the country. 85% of Americans think digital technology has been good for the country, and 75% think big tech has been good for us personally.
  • But Americans are on their guard about what tech is doing. We still have our concerns about how social media impacts families, how our use of tech impacts our ability to break free of it—and we’re looking for someone to take responsibility for our digital futures.

TL;DR: Americans share the same views on technology. We love it—but we don’t trust it.

Let’s break that down.

How much better is life with smartphones? We literally can do anything we want on it. Just ten years ago this wasn’t the case. Phones can order food, grocery shop, map, talk to anyone in the world, play games…

— Ray C, 25 | North Carolina

The big picture:

No matter how you cut it: Americans are optimistic.

It turns out, there is something that nearly all of us feel good about. 85% of Americans believe digital technology is a good thing for the country. When asked whether or not they felt modern technology was positive for our country, 82% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats agreed it was.

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It isn’t just political. No matter how you divide us demographically—by location, gender, employment, ethnicity and more—technology leaves us with a united, widespread sense of promise.

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There are a few pockets of Americans that are less positive than others. The highly educated, wealthy, and smartphone users think more highly of tech than those 
who are lower income, less educated, not smartphone users, and politically Independent. But even the low-enthusiasm groups of Americans believe technology is a good thing for the country by more than 70% in each group. Download the report for a segmented breakdown.

The “big tech” backlash we’ve predicted may not be right around the corner.

Despite what we read, Americans aren’t ready to step back from big tech. Our positivity holds even when asked about the role of big tech companies (Facebook, Google, Netflix, Amazon, Apple) that have made headlines in 2018.

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Beyond that, we think the way tech giants will impact us, and the nation, is improving. When compared to five years ago, 65% of Americans said the impact of tech companies has been positive on the country, and 71% said it has been positive for them personally.

But we’re not naive. Americans know there are downsides to our increasingly tech-dependent society.

We haven’t been immune to the warnings we’ve heard about technology’s impact. In particular, we’re alarmed by privacy breaches, the impact of technology on children, and our growing dependence on our devices.

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Technology has enabled people to connect as never before, in real time and over vast distances.

— John L, 65 | New York

The devil in the details:

For every shiny, new thing that excites us about tech—there’s a slightly murkier, unsettling flipside. We asked two open-ended questions—“How has technology affected YOU in a good or bad way?” and “How has technology affected SOCIETY in a good or bad way?”— and saw a few recurring themes occur.

Americans believe…

Technology connects us (but consumes us).

1. The world feels closer, and more intimate, than ever.

With the rise of social media, video communication, and ubiquitous cell phone access—participants are excited by how “small” the tech makes the world feel. Facebook makes it easier for us to stay in touch, and video calling makes it easier to feel like we’re “there”—even when we’re elsewhere.

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2. But we still feel further apart.

Where there’s access online, there’s also anonymity. Many participants feel that our current tech landscape has made us poorer communicators, quicker to judge, less likely to be civil, and more “surface” than “substance.”

3. We feel good about how we use social media. But we aren’t as sure about how others use it.

    Participants are increasingly concerned about the ways social media can fall into the “wrong hands.” We want tech companies to step up and start combating hate groups online. And we want them to take more action when it comes to identifying fake news.

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    4. In particular, not our children’s.

      Participants take a definitively negative stance on tech when asked about their worries for the next generation. 65% of respondents believe that social media, in particular, is bad or mostly bad for children.

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      Everything is easier. We save time! Life is simply simpler!

      — Shannon G, 27 | Massachusetts

      Tech makes everything easier (except for taking the time to unplug).

      1. We can do more. And we can do it better, and faster.

        A “smart home” speaker can wake us up in the morning, tell us our schedule for the day, call our friends, and give us directions. Our fridges can order groceries, and our watches can monitor our health. Participants are excited by the way tech can simplify, streamline and automate our day-to-day lives, with 43% citing convenience as a factor in their positivity.

        2. We want to go on a tech diet (but we’re afraid we’ll starve).

          We can do just about everything on our phone—but we’re struggling to put our phones down. A majority of participants want to limit the amount of time they spend on mobile devices, and even more of us want to cut back on our social media use.

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          3. We’re losing something in our reliance on devices.

            A common refrain from respondents was that “technology is making us dumb,” and our addiction to it is a threat to our happiness. Participants are increasingly wary that their personal relationships may suffer as they struggle to be “present.”

            Tech opens us up to the world (but it gives the world total access to “us”).

            1. Now, everything’s at our fingertips.

                    This shouldn’t surprise us: “Google” is a verb. Participants are excited by the access we have to information, and our capacity to learn more, nurture our curiosity, and accomplish new things.

                    I think people feel like they have lost some control in terms of what information is shared with companies, and I can see that being something that may make some people very uncomfortable.

                    — Erica D, 33 | New York

                    2. But we’re deeply concerned about our loss of privacy—and worried that our personal data may become public record.

                      If you feel like it’s “creepy” that companies seem to know about you—you’re not alone. 79% of participants are actively concerned about how much of their personal data is being collected.

                      3. We want everyone (or anyone) to take more responsibility for data privacy.

                        Most participants agree something should be done—and we’re willing to be the ones who do it. 86% of us plan to take steps to protect our data online—but we’re hoping to get some help from tech companies and the federal government.

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                        I personally am pursuing more balance and trying to only use tech that saves me time and lets me focus on what’s more important to me (being present with my family).

                        — Amber A, 38 | Florida

                        Where do we go from here?

                        Tech excites us and worries us in ways that we can all relate to. It’s easier for us to stay in touch—but hard for us to stop touching our cellphones. We feel connected to more people, but concerned for our own children. We have access to more, but more bad actors have access to us.

                        Here’s what we want to change.

                        We want tech companies to take more responsibility.

                        Whether it’s protecting our data, or keeping our addiction at bay—Americans hope tech companies will step up, and do more for their users. A few specific desires garnering widespread interest:

                        • 70% of respondents want tech companies to help them better control time spent on their phones
                        • 81% of respondents want social media companies to better address hate groups using their platforms
                        • 82% of respondents want tech companies to reduce the amount of data they collect
                        • 89% of respondents want it to be easier to identify “fake news” in 2019

                        And many of us want big tech to get smaller.

                        A sizable minority of us worry tech companies are ballooning to a dangerous size. 38% of Americans think that the government should break up the biggest players, like Facebook or Amazon.

                        We want the federal government to step in—regardless of our political leanings.

                        There’s strong bipartisan support for legislation that will keep our data private—and widespread concern that regulations aren’t moving fast enough. We expect to see more debate on this in the 2020 election cycle.

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                        A note on methodology:

                        The themes, quotes, storylines and concerns raised in this report were collected via qualitative, nationwide interviews with 776 participants sourced using dscout’s platform for remote research in December 2018. That information was used to design and conduct a national survey of 2100 smartphone owners (referred to as “respondents”) via Qualtrics. After the initial findings, we used NORC at the University of Chicago’s probability-based panel AmeriSpeak® to conduct a national survey of 1003 Americans (referred to as “Americans”) in mid-March, with a margin of error of +/- 4.18%.

                        For all methodology details, demographic data and insights from the research, download the full report.