Fear of falling behind and the medicalization of computer attitudes in cold war USA (1960s–1980s)

Ginevra Sanvitale (Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


This article explores the multifaceted ways in which fear has informed US computer narratives during the Cold War, by analyzing the relationship be­ tween “fear of falling behind” and the medicalization of “computer attitudes”, “computer anxiety” and “computerphobia” (CAAP). The article focuses on the historical unfolding of this medicalization process from the 1960s to the 1980s, drawing upon the parallel developments of debates about computers in education and the formalization of CAAP as a research topic in the Behav­ ioral Sciences. These developments are presented through official reports, conference proceedings, and academic articles of the period. Large computer projects by the US military­industrial complex, such as SAGE or SDI, were justified by narratives of the fearful consequences of falling behind in the Cold War. From the 1960s onwards, resistance to computers was described as an individual “anxiety” or “phobia” in a number of reports and studies. These negative feelings allegedly hindered personal and professional success as well as endangered the future of the country. In this way, the Cold War “fear of falling behind” was translated into a concern which was rooted in the individual sphere. Furthermore, CAAP definitions were informed by Cold War ambitions of building a technologically advanced capitalist society. As a result, the medicalization of CAAP marginalized competing perspectives on computers and their social significance, particularly those originating in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)227-244
Number of pages18
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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