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You, Robot

April 10, 2017

When I was a child, long before the Internet had been invented, the only sources of daily distraction were television and the newspaper. Television in those days was broadcast, only, so daytime viewing was dominated by "soap operas." That left me with the book that I was currently reading, typically science fiction, or the newspaper. In our middle class suburban household, the newspaper was the local rag, and not The New York Times.

Since "all the news that's fit to print" doesn't take that many pages, the local newspaper had quite a few filler articles. In one of these I learned about the technical name for the fear of the number thirteen; namely, triskaidekaphobia. Such an irrational fear is called a phobia, from the Greek word, φοβος (phobos, fear). Scientists have usurped the term, phobia, for other purposes, as in hydrophobia, the property of being repelled by water.

Friday the 13th calendar

Friday the 13th.

Some people have a fear, paraskavedekatriaphobia, of Fridays that fall on the 13th day of a month.

Such a day occurs at least once each year, and up to three times a year. The next Friday the 13th will be October 13, 2017.

(Linux Oxygen Project icon, modified using Inkscape.)

Triskaidekaphobia is a compound word that combines phobia with three other Greek words, τρις (three), και (and), and δεκα (ten); that is, the Greek way of saying thirteen. It's easy to coin a new phobia by combining a Greek prefix with -phobia. This was interesting to me, a child who was being classically educated and didn't have hellenologophobia, the fear of Greek language terms.

Wikipedia has an extensive list of phobias that includes such common phobias as
• Arachnophobia Fear of spiders, scorpions, etc.
• Ophidiophobia Fear of snakes.
• Acrophobia Fear of heights.
• Agoraphobia Fear of open places.
• Cynophobia Fear of dogs.
• Claustrophobia Fear of enclosed spaces.

There are also some interesting, but uncommon, phobias.
• Globophobia Fear of balloons.
• Pupaphobia Fear of puppets.
• Coulrophobia Fear of clowns.

While coulrophobia is not a medically-recognized phobia, you might think that this assessment is shortsighted after viewing Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, Stephen Chiodo, Director).[1]

As expected, there are a few phobias relating to the STEM fields. First, there's numerophobia (also called arithmophobia). This is technically a fear of numbers, but it's generally considered to be "math phobia." Chemophobia is a fear of chemicals, or chemistry. People with an aversion to technology might suffer from neophobia, the fear of anything new. Why stop there, when you can have panphobia, also called pantophobia, the fear of everything,[2] which would also encompass hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, the fear of long words.

One increasingly common phobia in our modern age is technophobia, the fear of advanced technology and its devices. Technophobia has deep roots, having started in the industrial revolution, when machines, such as weaving machines, started to replace skilled weavers. The Luddites, a group of 19th century anti-technology textile workers in England, took to smashing machines. Neo-Luddite is used today as a derogatory term to describe technology skeptics.

The history of technophobia is easily tracked through novels and other media, one major example of which would be Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In cinema, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, now available on YouTube,[3] shows a world in which people are slaves who run machinery owned by an upper class. A recent cinema example is the series of Terminator movies that pit artificially intelligent machines against mankind.

Metropolis robot

Stepford wife, vers. 1.0.

In Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the ultimate fate of men tending to the machines of the upper class was to become machines, themselves.

(Still image from a YouTube video.)

Some technophobic groups, such as the Amish (see photo) resist technology as being contrary to religious principles. As discovered in the 2015 Chapman Survey of American Fears, some individuals who use technology actually fear it.[4] This survey of about 1,500 adults placed the fear of tracking of personal data at more than double the fear of death.[4] Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman University and a study co-author, remarked that fear of technology is high since the highest levels of fear are for things on which we're dependent, but have no control.[4]

Amish Sedan (Art Anderson)

One horsepower.

Amish sedans, such as this, can be seen on the rural roads of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, even today.

(Wikimedia Commons photo by Art Anderson.)

One growing problem is the rise of automation and the concomitant problem of job displacement. I discussed some aspects of this in a previous article (The Future of Work, March 3, 2016). A recent Baylor University study of data from Wave 2 of the Chapman Survey of American Fears of 1,541 participants shows that more than a third of those polled have a greater fear that technology will lead to job loss than they fear public speaking, romantic rejection, and police brutality.[5-6]

It was found that technophobes, who are a significant portion of Americans, are more likely than non-technophobes to report having anxiety-related mental health issues and to fear financial insecurity.[5] women, non-whites and the less educated, traditionally marginalized groups, report being most fearful of technology.[6] Says, Paul McClure, a sociologist at Baylor University who published the study in Social Science Computer Review,
"If you're afraid of losing your job to a robot, you're not alone... This is a real concern among a substantial portion of the American population. They are not simply a subgroup of generally fearful people... "People in certain occupations may legitimately fear losing their jobs to robots and software that can work for cheaper and for longer hours than any human."[6]

Previous research has linked the unemployed, and employees who have little job security, with poorer mental health, heart disease and increased mortality.[6] Technophobes, who were found to be 37% of those surveyed, are three times more likely to fear unemployment compared to others, and they were nearly three times more likely to be worried about their future financial security.[6] Technophobes almost uniformly can't stop or control worrying, and about three-quarters of technophobes have a feeling of dread.[6]

Experts have said that the rate of worker displacement by robots and artificial intelligence will increase in the next several years, particularly in routine job areas.[6] These would include such occupations as warehouse workers, truck drivers, loan officers and paralegals. Notably safe would be manual laborers in non-routine jobs and workers in creative fields.[6] Says McClure, "Regardless of whether technology might lead to certain people's jobs becoming obsolete, the fear itself is real."[6]

Some funding for the Chapman Survey of American Fears was provided by the John Templeton Foundation.[6]


  1. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, Stephen Chiodo, Director) on the Internet Movie Database.
  2. Lucy as a Psychiatrist, Charlie Brown Christmas, YouTube Video, February 6, 2010.
  3. Metropolis on YouTube; Another version on YouTube.
  4. Cari Romm, "Americans Are More Afraid of Robots Than Death," The Atlantic, October 16, 2015.
  5. Paul K. McClure, "'You're Fired,' Says the Robot," Social Science Computer Review, Advanced Publication, March 20 2017.
  6. People Afraid of Robots Are Much More Likely to Fear Losing Their Jobs and Suffer Anxiety, Baylor Study Finds, Baylor University Press Release, March 21, 2017.

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