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New Survey Says Americans Remain Positive on Technology & Innovation

Despite the growing number of data breaches, cyberattacks, privacy issues and other problems associated with technology, Americans remain optimistic on technology and innovation, according to a new report.

Last month, I followed an intriguing link on USA Today’s front page as I read top stories online. The headline proclaimed: In Tech We Trust: Exploring American optimism on technology.

The story begins: “In a time when we’re more accustomed to being divided than united, Americans have found one thing they can agree upon: Our attitudes about technology show overwhelming consensus and widespread optimism. 

In a recent survey conducted on behalf of the Charles Koch Institute, Americans’ confidence in technology is one distinct area where the familiar segments of the American population give way to unified expression. This cohesion is best exemplified in the finding that 92% of Americans indicated their belief that innovation is a big part of American culture and history: a near unanimous result.”

This article points out that this optimism cuts across life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness:

  • Life: We live longer and better due to medical innovation
  • Liberty: Technology in the workplace gives us more freedom
  • Pursuit of Happiness: Innovation improves well being and connects us
This interactive version of the study offers a true/false quiz with details (via links) that fact-check American attitudes toward innovation. Here are the questions:  

  • Innovation is an important piece of American culture and history. — True.
92% of Americans, spanning geographical, generational and party lines, agree, and so do facts.

  • Strong market competition leads to more innovative technologies created at a faster pace. — True. 87% of Americans agree, according to the Harvard Business Review.
  • The U.S. is one of the world’s leaders in innovation. — Yes, but …
77% of Americans think so. According to the National Science Foundation,

Every two years the National Science Foundation publishes a report on the state of U.S. science and engineering enterprise. The 2018 report confirmed that the U.S. continues to rank first globally on a number of key innovation metrics including: most investment in research and development, attracts the most venture capital investment, awards the most advanced degrees, and is the largest producer in high-tech manufacturing sectors.

  • Whether early adopters or Luddite laggards, everyone is engaged with innovation. — True. Today about 16% of millennials describe themselves as early adopters” — a little over three times as many who describe themselves as tech-phobic, according to the New York Times
  • Americans care about the utility of a product, not the novelty. – True
“Far and away, the most important aspect of technology for Americans is the utility of the product and whether or not it has a tangible benefit on their lives. 91% of all survey respondents said that when considering purchasing new tech products they focus more on the actual use of the product than the perceived popularity or a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality. …” Source: Thomas Edison Institute

The study also showed that most Americans are not obsessed with artificial intelligence (AI), but are rather hopeful in AI advances in the coming decade.

The details of the report can be downloaded here. Here are some more of the results:

“A strong majority expect package delivering flying drones (81%) and commercially available self-driving vehicles (71%) to arrive within their lifetime.

Even longer-term technologies such as short-trip flying vehicles (42%) and underground car transport tunnels (33%) are seen as viable lifetime innovations for more than a third of Americans. 

In terms of regulation, Americans generally believe that there is too much power and wealth controlled by a few highly innovative companies (77%). Despite this, Americans are in favor of allowing market competition (87%) to drive innovation than using regulation as a means of preventing unforeseen problems in the technological mass market (55%).” 

In a previous study conducted by Pew Research in 2017, “four-in-ten Americans credit technology with improving life most in the past 50 years.”

Forbes recently offered this article, which describes the rise of the technology infrastructure sector among investors, in areas ranging from smart cities to hardware and software to sensors and apps. This trend shows that there are financial resources behind this optimism.

What About All Those Data Breaches?

Are security pros too negative on technology and innovation?

Yes, if they want to stay in the mainstream — according to the recently released study from the Charles Koch Institute and USA Today.

I experienced this viewpoint last year in my own relationships, as I described in this article for CSO magazine: “Why security pros are addicted to FUD and what you can do about it.”

Here’s an excerpt:

I was at a Super Bowl party, where I saw a friend that I typically talk to a few times a year in Michigan. He came right up to me and said (in a melancholy tone), “Dan, I see your posts on LinkedIn all the time. I love your writing, but I can’t read them anymore.”

“Why?” I slowly responded.

“I just get too depressed reading about all that negative security news. It’s all problems, hacks, breaches, lawsuits, privacy violations, and worse. No good news. But things can’t be that bad — since technology is booming.”

(Side note: At this point someone interrupted us with a game update of a touchdown for one team, and we never finished the conversation.)

That exchange stuck in my mind for months. …

I ended that article with these recommendations for security professionals:

I also believe that FUD does have role to play in the industry. Here are a few ideas that can help harness the power of FUD:

  • Be aware — Understand your own actions and the natural security pro tendency to “share the FUD” as described above.
  • Offer cybersolutions — Even when you do share FUD, don’t leave people hanging. Even one cyberhygiene tip (or two) can help. What could have been done to prevent the issue? Use more thoughtful answers when possible.
  • Make FUD an appetizer, not the main course. When using FUD in conversations, presentations or as examples, don’t make it the main topic. Provide a balanced cyberdiet.
As this blogger points out, the opposite of FUD is often security apathy. Passionate security pros can struggle when others neglect, ignore or dismiss cyber-risks as not being relevant or worth addressing in the enterprise. In those cases, FUD is many times used to defeat the nay-sayers.

But FUD becomes a serious long-term concern when overused. The Chicken Little, yelling FUD too often can burn people out.

This “FUD/apathy pendulum” can swing back and forth while pragmatic business people look for a reasonable middle ground.  One helpful goal is to become (or maintain the role as) the trusted adviser who, even if you are addicted to FUD, offers your business best practice solutions that can help reduce cyber-risk in reasonable ways — without hype.

Closing Thoughts

I am publishing this blog on Easter Sunday, which is a day of hope offering good news for the millions of Americans who are Christians.

Indeed, surveys still show that more Americans say “In God we trust” than say “In tech we trust.” (No doubt, the majority say both.) This writer is a part of the first group  with more complicated (mixed) views on technology. As I describe in the CSO piece, I keep going back to FUD, with an ongoing professional skepticism that most cybersecurity professionals share with me about many new innovative products that are part of our new Internet of Things (IoT).  

I realize that my entire career has been built on computer science and technology innovation. I am very grateful for that. Yet, I cannot stop worrying about potential "Trojan Horses" being let into our lives with new tech.     

Nevertheless, even with all the negative stories in the media headlines and with plenty of data breaches to talk about, I think it is very important to offer pragmatic answers that work. The verifiable survey data shows Americans strongly value technology and innovation in numerous ways.  

Despite challenges, most Americans remain optimistic about the future of technology and innovation.  

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.