July 3, 1999

Technology Triumphs, Morality Falters

Scientific Inventions And Social Trends

Americans have decidedly different views of the technical and cultural changes of the 20th century. On the whole, technological changes are viewed as advancements for the better, while cultural changes are evolutions of mixed value to society.

Inventions involving communications and travel win plaudits from broad cross sections of the public. Younger generations are somewhat more enthusiastic about many recent innovations, although few Americans or groups rate the advent of any of these technologies as changes for the worse. In fact, the only scientific advances the public does not embrace are nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

The same cannot be said of cultural change. Two societal shifts of the late 20th century — the civil rights movement and women in the workplace — are now woven into our cultural identity and are viewed favorably by nearly everyone. But the benefits of other changes — the growth of the suburbs, spending habits and even popular music — are more ambiguous to the public, and few are seen as improvements by clear majorities. Americans are equally mixed about many biomedical advances.

Technology — Mostly for the Better

Technological advances that dramatically changed the way Americans work and live top the public’s list of positive achievements during the past century. The public is nearly unanimous in describing the invention of the radio (96%) and the automobile (91%) as changes for the better, while a more recent innovation — the computer — ranks close behind (87%). Indeed, large majorities describe a range of technological advances as changes for the better, with only those innovations involving nuclear power sparking less enthusiasm. Just 48% say the development of nuclear energy was a change for the better, and fewer than one-in-five (19%) say nuclear weapons were a step forward.

Consensus about the benefit of television is especially broad-based. Even less affluent Americans, who generally express less enthusiasm for technological advances, are just as likely as higher income groups to say the invention of television was a change for the better. Notably, parents of minors are less convinced of the benefits of TV: 66% of them say television was a change for the better, compared to 78% of others.

Public attitudes concerning a range of social and political changes are much more mixed. Some changes are widely seen as improvements, including the civil rights movement (84%) and women in the workplace (83%). But barely a majority says the growth of the suburbs is for the better (52%), and just one-third of Americans rate as a positive step the legalization of abortion (34%) or more acceptance of divorce (30%). Even fewer (22%) say the widespread use of credit cards is a change for the better.

In many cases, groups directly affected by a social change express more enthusiasm for it. For example, 87% of women say women in the workplace has been a change for the better, compared to 78% of men. And while many Americans see the wider acceptance of divorce as a change for the worse, women are less critical than men. More than one-third of women — and fully 43% of women between 30 and 49 — say acceptance of divorce has been a change for the better, compared to 24% of men.

Notably, 63% of those who now live in the suburbs say the growth of the suburbs has been a good thing, compared to 53% of those living in large cities and just 42% of those in rural areas.

Civil rights are an exception to this trend. Blacks are no more likely than whites to say the civil rights movement has been a change for the better — 85% of blacks and 84% of whites say expanded civil rights have improved things.

The decade.com

Evaluating inventions that gained prominence in just the past decade, Americans express the greatest enthusiasm for the new communications technologies — email, the Internet and cellular phones. Fully 71% of Americans say email is a change for the better, and nearly as many see the Internet (69%), cell phones (66%), and cable television (62%) as positive developments.

But enthusiasm for these new communications technologies divides sharply along generational lines. Three-quarters (75%) of those under age 50 say the Internet is a change for the better, compared to barely half (51%) of those ages 65 and older. Indeed, senior citizens generally express less enthusiasm than younger Americans for recent technological inventions — with the exception of cable TV, which ranks at the top of the list of changes for the better among those ages 65 and older.

Americans are much more narrowly divided over other recent advances in science, however. Some 43% say fertility drugs are a change for the better, while 32% say they are a change for the worse. Even fewer rate Viagra (36%) or the cloning of sheep (15%) as changes for the better.

Men and women hold sharply different views of some biomedical breakthroughs such as cloning. Almost two-thirds (62%) of women say the cloning of sheep is a change for the worse, for example, compared to just one-third (36%) of men. Cloning is also seen as a change for the worse by majorities of highly religious Americans, including white evangelicals.

Major social trends of the past decade also get a mixed review. Some 69% of Americans say mutual funds have been a change for the better, but a range of other developments fail to get positive ratings from even a majority of the public. Home schooling is seen as a change for the better by 43% of Americans, while 39% rate the gay rights movement as a positive step.

HMOs, telemarketing, and rap music get little praise. Indeed, majorities rate rap music (53%) and telemarketing (51%) as changes for the worse, and 49% say the same about HMOs and managed health care plans. Even among black Americans, enthusiasm for rap music is mixed — 26% of blacks say rap music is a change for the better (compared to 12% among whites), while 47% say rap is a change for the worse (compared to 55% among whites).

Support for other recent cultural trends cuts along partisan lines. For example, 45% of Democrats say the gay rights movement made things better, compared to just 31% of Republicans. In contrast, 48% of rank-and-file Republicans say home schooling represents a change for the better, compared to 39% of Democrats. Enthusiasm for home schooling is also especially high among white evangelicals (56% rating it as a change for the better).