SAN FRANCISCO — America's embrace of new technology, whether the automobile, television, or space travel, is usually wide-eyed and optimistic.
Yet there also comes a time when questions set in.
As experts total up what could be record damages from the "I love you" computer bug and its copycat versions, some analysts wonder if that time of questioning for the computer and Internet era has arrived.
Surveying a range of social, political, and economic developments in recent months, many see growing evidence that the computer's age of innocence is ending.
"There are a lot more questions being asked and a lot more skepticism than there used to be," says Stephen Talbott, author of the online Netfuture newsletter, a frequent critic of technology.
Millions have been affected by the latest virus, which rampaged around the globe in recent days. While no one sees a reversal in the Internet's growth, the incident comes against a backdrop of other examples of increased friction between new technology and society.
Beyond the federal government's action against Microsoft and the growing concern about the "digital divide," technology has also played a bit part in political scandal, for instance. White House lawyers last week were defending the handling of misplaced e-mail that had been subpoenaed by investigators in 1998. The problem was created in the first instance by computer-system errors.
And the entertainment industry, a frequent showcase of new technology, is being rocked by the Internet's ability to make hash of copyright laws.
The collision produced a first late last week: The popular rock group Metallica sought punishment of its own fans. The group is trying to force an Internet service called Napster, which enables people to trade music for free, to deny access to the hundreds of thousands of fans who use the company's servers to trade Metallica music.
All this conflict - as technology's reach butts heads with older social norms - represents a departure from the experience of the past decade or so. The spread of personal computers and the rise of the Internet have transformed American social and business practices, and done so with astonishing ease and social acceptance.
But with each new virus outbreak, the warnings over the vulnerability of the Internet, which links more and more of society's vital functions together, grow more dire.
"All you can hope is that incidents like this raise awareness of the fact that the vulnerabilities and risks are getting worse and worse," says Peter Neumann, chief scientist at the computer-science laboratory at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.
Mr. Neumann says that while viruses and hacker attacks usually are handled with software patches and other technology band-aids, the root causes go back decades to the early development of software and operating systems. Swept along by competition and commercial incentives, computer businesses made long-term security a low priority. To correct that, at this stage, says Neumann, "there are no quick fixes."
Recent attacks on prominent Internet sites have rallied government and private-sector forces to work more closely together. At the federal level, resources to fight cybercrime have been increased and new agencies have been formed. But many experts see the security threat rising faster than the response.
The damages from the latest e-mail virus are projected by some to hit $10 billion.
Looking at the Internet revolution broadly, Jay Whitehead, the chief of San Francisco-based EmployeeService.com, says, "the Internet has reached critical mass in terms of penetration. And now you're going to see a lot of social dislocation." He adds: "There is already building resentment of technology and the changes it brings - for instance, the way it extends the work day for many people."
Of course, computers and the Internet are now so interwoven into the fabric of the American economy, no one expects a radical pullback.
"In our culture, we tend to think on an economic basis," says Mike Newkirk, who teaches technology and social values at San Jose State University. And because the Internet is creating such rapid economic growth, Mr. Newkirk does not believe there is much deep questioning of technology.
Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, says it's only natural to expect extreme adulation to be followed by harsh criticism as the technology era wears on. "Technology is dominant now, so like whatever is dominant in our society at the moment, we've saddled it with both our fondest hopes and our deepest fears."
That love-hate relationship may intensify in the next few years, but it pales in comparison to the backlash he expects when society becomes more aware of the revolution afoot in bioengineering. By comparison, he says, this "is only a warm-up."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society