Women and Children: Moral Panic About "Gadgets"

Uterus flying around at train car near you
The study of “Cognitive Risk” tells how emotions (fight or flight) come out when something is unfamiliar. From e-waste to condoms, the Churches and Enviros play a role in making sure we are safe from “witches brews” of technology.  

Genevieve Bell, the director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, has written some intriguing things about how society digests new gadgets and equates them to risk of our most vulnerable.  She makes the point that sometimes society tries to leverage it's internal distrust of new gadgets by invoking imagined risks to vulnerable and innocent people (Per the Simpsons, "Won't someone think of the children?"), and perhaps use morality to leverage society to react to their own fight or flight fears.

Here is an excellent (and funny!) column by Ben Rooney of Wall St. Journal "Tech Europe" where I learned about Ms. Bell, titled: 
Women And Children First: Technology And Moral Panic

Rooney and Bell take one of the themes of this blog a bit further, back into history.  Religious fears and environmentalist-moral panic over "e-waste uncertainties" is nothing new.   

“I like the fact that moral panic is remarkably stable and it is always played out in the bodies of children and women,” [Bell] said.
There was, she says, an initial pushback about electrifying homes in the U.S.: “If you electrify homes you will make women and children and vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them. So electricity is going to make women vulnerable. Oh and children will be visible too and it will be predators, who seem to be lurking everywhere, who will attack.
“There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.
Bell has a theory about how society judges which technologies to react fearfully of.   I am not sure the fear of plastic packaging and fear of "e-waste" exports pass her test, but I'll give it some more thought.  According to Rooney's column, to trigger "panic", the gadgetry must meet all three fear  points:
  • It has to change your relationship to time.
  • It has to change your relationship to space.
  • It has to change your relationship to other people.
For recycling, if you have a focus group of people rank their anxiety or social concern over the following phrases, I think people would have more anxiety over some than others.
  • Electronics recycling
  • Plastic recycling
  • "Hazardous waste" recycling
  • Composting
  • Metal recycling
  • Paper recycling
No one freaks out over compost.   Of course, the last is not recycling.  And that last one, metal mining, impacts forests, toxics, health, species diversity, etc. all disproportionately.   How do environmentalists choose which of our own recycling solutions to distrust?

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