As part of a study, the Ferdinand Steinbeis Institute investigates the impact of loss of Control on attitudes toward new technology among the general public
In 2018, the Ferdinand Steinbeis Institute (FSTI) launched its #techourfuture initiative with the aim of giving fellow citizens a chance to find out everything they need to know about future technologies, but also to exchange ideas in order to better understand and discuss technology. “Fellow citizens” means everyone from schoolchildren to retirees, from the tech-savvy to those less familiar with technology. A good two and a half years later, the FSTI team has been conducting a follow-up study to determine the extent to which the defined goals have been achieved.
Shortly before the initial project draws to a close, the #techourfuture team looks back at the successful series of events – which focused on three carefully chosen tech topics: the future of autonomous flying, the future of healthcare, and the future of nutrition, each organized in a different event format using a variety of communication channels. The people who participated in events were chosen to form the sample of an empirical quantitative survey aimed at underpinning the study with scientific evidence.
Are people becoming more skeptical?
The results of the study underscore the importance of coming at issues from different angles when trying to understand not only perceived losses of control, but also users’ acceptance of new technology and technical systems. Previous studies looking at technology acceptance among the general public mostly made somewhat vague references to loss of control as a possible explanation for attitudes toward new technologies. The FSTI study shows that the attitude held by the population toward technologies – for the most part, consistently positive for decades, albeit ambivalent and differentiated depending on the type of technology – could quite feasibly shift toward increasing skepticism as a result of intensifying digital transformation and networked systems, not only within the economy but also in society as a whole. One of the main factors fueling this trend is concern regarding the increasing loss of control hand in hand with digitally networked, increasingly converging, and autonomously controlled technology.
Until now, empirical studies have indicated that new technology acceptance in Baden-Wuerttemberg is invariably high, and that open-mindedness toward technology is generally strong among the population. Critical stances toward technology – especially among certain stakeholders, trade associations, and public organizations – are often mooted in public debate and political discussion, typically resulting in strong media coverage. The ambivalent attitude toward new technology is particularly noticeable with different types of technology – everyday technology, technology found in consumer products, and technology used by industry are generally well received by users, whereas more alien forms of technology are seen much more critically. Quite possibly, differences between the various types of technology are gradually evaporating as an increasing number of technologies “go digital,” form networks, and converge – providing new points of concern regarding the loss of control.
Loss of Control happens on a number of levels
The study identified the key dimensions of losing control, based on a heuristic model. These are: the general perception that people are losing control, its origins, its different manifestations, the nature and quality of potential interventions, the cyclical relationship between understanding technology use in terms of fundamental theory and practical application, data security, psychological factors, the degree to which technology runs autonomously, the social and technical context of technology within a system, and normative aspects. The non-representative, empirical quantitative analysis conducted as part of the #techourfuture forums reveals key statistical correlations between the chosen dimensions. The study also indicates that there is a general perception that control is indeed being lost among the population, although this is by no means universal. The perceived loss of control primarily stems from a sense that new technology cannot be monitored properly and that individuals cannot adequately test or control certain forms of technology, nor do they have sufficient say in how technologies work or are designed. Looking at different sociodemographic groups points to a rise in the general perception – particularly as people age – that control is being lost, i.e. older users are more likely to feel they do not have sufficient control of a new technology and that they will not be able to master it. They also perceive this more intensely. Women also tend to say they find it more difficult keeping pace with new technology.
The survey respondents were more likely to say that this sense that they are losing control was a result of handing over control to other forms of technology – rather than surrendering control to other people – and this loss of control is more likely to be perceived as involuntary. Concerns that control could be lost quite suddenly, across the board, are marginally stronger than the fear of gradually relinquishing control, and there is an indication that this correlates positively with the respondents’ age and marital status.
In addition, users are noticeably more open to new technologies and technical systems if they are offered ways to control them and intervene. If technical systems are in control, approval levels drop; if other people have control, there is slight approval; if control lies with a digital intermediary, this is especially likely to result in user rejection. Safety and reliability form an essential precondition of being open to new technology, particularly among younger people.
There is also a clear indication that understanding a new technology and gaining an overview goes a long way toward reducing reservations, and that fundamentally understanding and experiencing new technology influence each other. Understanding and having an overview of new technology is especially important for older and more educated people, whereas it is more important for younger people to gain hands-on exposure to a technology.
The survey also confirmed that the assumed correlation between data security and loss of control does exist. People are more likely to be open to new technology and technical systems if the information they submit is kept secure and it can be ensured that third parties are unable to gain access to or use their data.
Negative psychological influences such as fear, anger, and resistance – when a new technology takes control of certain functions under certain circumstances, and users are forced to become more passive – could not be identified among all participants. Nonetheless, older users are significantly more likely to state that they have such negative feelings than younger persons.
It is more of a mixed picture when it comes to the correlation between loss of control and the degree of autonomy offered by new technologies, as well as their integration into social technology. There were mixed feelings when it came to new technology becoming actively involved in decision-making, unlike technology providing support to users in certain situations, which was viewed positively. There are negative reactions when technology that is otherwise considered helpful and is accepted comes into play during critical situations and in high-risk areas. When it comes to the norms used by technology to make decisions, the study clearly confirmed that the same values should be applied as they would by people.
Loss of Control influences technology acceptance
“A number of conclusions can be drawn from these results when it comes to managing digital transformation and figuring out a corresponding political frame of reference. The sense that you’re losing control is a relevant factor that influences technology acceptance, especially when introducing and disseminating new technology and technical systems. The providers and developers of these technologies will increasingly need to take such influencing factors into account, and policymakers should also include this in support and regulatory processes,” concludes Dr. Michael Ortiz, who authored the study.
The idea should be to ensure new technologies and technical systems can be adequately monitored, that institutional measures are in place and, above all, that they are made transparent to the general public. Institutions and agencies should pay closer attention to this challenge. In addition, the subsequent users of new technology should be more closely involved in development processes, so they can provide early input on design and function. New, digital, and/or autonomously controlled technology should be designed in such a way that it can undergo sufficient testing and be shaped by users. One way to lay a useful foundation for this could be to organize workshops and forums involving a broader spectrum of people during development, such as end users, providers, developers, and researchers, and this could reveal concrete options for planning further in-depth #techourfuture formats.
When losing control is primarily perceived as involuntary and users feel the ability to manage technology is being transferred to other systems, one has to wonder if providers could extend their launch strategies to include other ideas and whether suitable advice and support could be provided by politicians. Not only is it important to assess if there are alternative ways to manage the process of designing new technology, more must be done to highlight the safety and reliability of applications. In doing so, the focus surely has to lie in data security and the objective of designing digital and virtual spaces based on security standards that are comparable with analog spaces. Not only will this depend on wider and more detailed regulation, but – perhaps more importantly – the pace at which legislation is passed will be important.
Giving consideration to sociodemographic factors when sharing technology
The results of the FSTI study also indicate that future methods aimed at helping users understand new technology will increasingly also have to take the individual requirements of various sociodemographic groups into account. These could quite conceivably include certain event formats for introducing people to technology, certain approaches to market introduction, and political discourse to address the key factors that drive users’ perception that they are losing control. For example, it would be possible to organize specific event formats targeted at seniors, young people, and women, but also people with stronger or weaker academic or professional backgrounds. The chosen formats could place special emphasis on theoretical understanding, hands-on experience, trying things out, security issues, and privacy.
Here  you can find out more about this project