Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
I believe we reached that point quite some time ago in our civilisation. While most people watch television, drive cars, use electrical appliances, fly in jet aircraft, use computers and surf the internet, few understand how any of these technologies actually work, or the science that sits behind them.
In some cases many in society actively deny or denounce the science behind their everyday tools while still partaking of its benefits. They simply don't recognise or understand the disconnect.
Over in the Gov 2.0 Australia Group, Stefan Willoughby recently stated, in reference to Eventbrite and other online tools,
I just don't understand why it is so hard to convince people that these tools are valuable and not nearly as risky as they think.
Many of us working in the online space have encountered similar attitudes over the last 10-15 years, often from otherwise highly intelligent people.
I can't legitimately call this behaviour 'risk-aversion'. Those refusing to consider the use of online tools or expressing concern over the 'risks' often have little or no understanding of whether there are any risks (and of what magnitude), or whether the risks of these tools are less than the risks of the tools they are using now.
It is simply a 'fear of things new to me', without any intellectual consideration of the relative risks and benefits. This is a known phobia, Neophobia - the irrational fear of anything new.
I've thought about this issue a great deal over the years and tried a number of tactics to educate people on the uses and actual risks of online tools.
After 16 years I've come to the conclusion that explaining how online tools work simply isn't the right way to overcome irrational fears in most cases.
People don't really want to understand how the tools of our civilisation function - they just want to feel confident that they work consistently and in known ways.
In other words, familiarity trumps understanding.
To begin experimenting with a technology many people simply want assurance that 'others like me' have used it previously in a similar manner safety and successfully. Their comfort with its use then grows the more they use the tool themselves and the less new it feels.
They don't really care about the science or machinery under the hood.
Therefore as internet professionals our task isn't to share knowledge on the mechanics of online tools. It is to build a sense of comfort and familiarity with the medium.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't use evidence, explain how online tools differ and can be used for different goals or effectively identify and mitigate the real risks. This remains very, very important in familiarising people with the online world.
However we should spend less time on the technical details, explaining the machinery of how information is transmitted over the internet, how servers secure data, or how dynamic and static web pages are written and published. These things 'just work'.
Instead we need to focus on helping people use the tools themselves, provide examples of use by others and demonstrate practically how risks are managed and mitigated. Support people in understanding and trusting that each time they push a particular button a consistent result will occur.
Once people are familiar with a particular online tool and no longer consider it new it becomes much easier to move on to an accurate benefit and risk assessment and move organisations forward. Even if they don't really understand how it all works.