When wireless makes tech fans into irrational Luddites

Why does the city that leads the tech industry act like the villagers fearing Frankenstein?

A research study last week indicating that most brain tumors occur out of range of cellular radio signals contradicts a study of a few weeks that suggested (weakly, if you read it) cellphone users were more likely to get brain cancer. For more than a decade, we've seen the constant ping-pong of studies that raise and dismiss these fears and the hysteria they cause either way.

Ironically, tech-savvy areas seem most susceptible to this irrational fear about technology. College-educated, well-paid, iPhone-addicted, Web-smart professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area (where I work and live) are proof of that. We complain about poor reception for our smartphones and tablets, but freak out when AT&T or Verizon Wireless wants to install a cell in a church steeple, on a telephone pole, or atop a roof. A good friend of mine is a high-level IT manager in a Fortune 500 company with the usual tech toys of a Silicon Valleyite: flat-screen TV, iMac, MacBook Pro, and BlackBerry. But he flipped when the phone company wanted to add a cell repeater on the phone pole next door.

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Basic physics, aka the inverse square law, shows that such radiation diminishes to background levels way before it hits his house, much less him or his family. The wiring in his home office emits more radiation -- still below background levels -- in the area he sits than a cell repeater outside.

The city and county of San Francisco (the two cover the one and same geography, so we have a unified government) recently tried to force stores to publish the radiation levels of each cellphone, wireless headset, and smartphone sold, ostensiby to help consumers choose. But the proposal was more likely to create fear with information whose value was unclear, to put it politely, and that consumers wouldn't know how to evaluate -- even assuming the numbers had any meaning.

That effort finally stalled. Our supervisors got distracted first by wanting to restrict fast-food sales to children -- they love to act as parental proxies -- and then by what really matters: jockeying for position in the upcoming mayoral race and the positions elsewhere that the jockeying was opening up. But it's only the most recent example of such politicking that extends from city hall down to the neighborhoods of San Francisco and its suburbs.

What is it about wireless technology that fuels such worries? It's the radiation, of course, raising primal fears stoked by the World War II atomic bombing of Hiroshima, as well as the Godzilla movies our generation grew up watching.

But it's not just radiation. Marin County to the north, arguably home of the best-educated and best-paid people per capita in the area, suffers disporportionately from various communicable diseases because a signficant slice of its highly educated population fears vaccinations -- a technology that transformed the world's health a century ago.

You'd think one of the most educated cities on Earth, home of many of the workers who toil in Silicon Valley creating these apparently dangerous technologies, would know better and focus on provable issues and science-based policy-making. San Francisco reacted nobly to the fears and unknowns around the AIDS crisis 30 years ago, but it seems to have lost that capability. It's hardly alone -- these fears crop up throughout the world, usually in urban (and urbane) locations.

What's the answer to all this? I wish I knew. When the Luddites smashed factories in 19th-century England for fear of losing their textile jobs to mechanization, the cause of their fear was rational, even if their methods were less so. Ditto for the 15th-century Dutch who threw wooden shoes (sabots, and thus the origin of the word "sabotage") into the machines that threatened to mechanize their jobs away.

But today, some of those very engineers, product managers, technology marketing executives, IT pros, and all the rest that are part of the machine they are raging against -- afraid of the very technology they help make possible and enjoy themselves. It's as if they've had a psychotic break, with two incompatible worldviews existing simultaneously and apparently without raising any internal contradictions.

The unfortunate result is that this inherently irrational approach thwarts serious inquiry into the issues that may exist. What you get instead are partisans each trying to prove their own case. The cellular industry funds studies that shockingly find cellular radiation is safe, whereas those who fear it shockingly find clues that it is unsafe. As long as the argument is fed by irrationality, the truth will remain a mystery.

This article, "When wireless makes tech fans into irrational Luddites," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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