Thursday, 1 November 2012

How scary is change?

Hands up those of you who are a little bit scared of technological ‘progress’? Ah, I see a few shy hands in the air. I don’t really wonder why this is because, personally, I’d put myself in the petrified rather than scared category. Those of us older than 40 have seen the most phenomenal advances in what has become doable since the advent of the web, email and broadband, and we are only just catching up with the many profound ways new hardware and software affect the way we work, alter our skills and throw new light on what we do for a living.

No matter how slow or recessionary the economies of the western and emerging world might become – and we may see much worse yet – we will not see a commensurate slowing down in the rate of delivery of new technologies from the usual giants, and from some new ones. Nor will we see a diminution in the take-up of these tools for work and play. I choose my words carefully here because I am doubtful about how much a Tablet or iPad, or more traditional laptop bought for work purposes is devoted solely to that purpose. It seems that just about every interaction we have from the age of about 11 or younger until we shuffle off our virtual coils involves us examining a screen, flicking adeptly on an app, or otherwise surfing the ether.

Perhaps what startled me into this line of thought was the consideration that so many people are now shopping online that the independent high street shop is likely, quite seriously, to become either a thing of the past or a shop front only – somewhere where passers-by can see goods on display but will not be able to buy them until they get out their gadgetry or are sitting in front of their home screens. We are seeing the move towards e-books and the ructions this is causing among major publishers. How soon will it be before our proclivity for surfing the web, using increasingly sophisticated technology, truly alters the nature and landscape of our towns and cities.

What is noticeably lacking in all these things is personal interaction. Just as people used to prefer the convenience of the telephone rather than a face-to-face meeting, today they prefer to text or email rather than do either of the latter. Human interaction recedes, even within the domain of an open plan office but also in ways which might have longer term social effects. I live in a beautiful rural area and there are plenty of children hereabouts but they seldom romp and play in the woods. More often they are attached to a smartphone or a games console and, too often I think, they live in their own virtual worlds.

We are so profoundly affected by the revolution in communication that we are probably unaware of how much it has become the thing we do rather than a means to an end in pure communication terms. People can and do spend entire days emailing each other, sometimes unwittingly doubling and trebling their workloads as they pour what amounts to too much information, much of which is unread (and much unreadable), into each other’s online in trays.

But it is very difficult to take stock of the way we work and of our relationship with technology when we are passengers on an increasingly fast-moving train. I am ambivalent about this. I personally love technology when I’m on top of it and using it effectively to support work and social activities. At the same time I feel that it gnaws insidiously into the fabric of things; that we are in some ways a slave to it; that it is divorcing us from our real natures and from natural things; that it creates barriers between ourselves and others, making us reclusive; that it supports progress in what appears to be a visionless and, to some extent, value-debased society; that perhaps it is a toy we distract ourselves with as we hurtle towards the fallen bridge.  

As a result of the enormity of change that has occurred, primarily because of the use of email, broadband, internet and related devices, we are probably still in the aftermath of the first stages of a revolution and have no cognisance of the size of the wave that takes us along. Inevitably, we are still slavishly exploring novelty rather than making use of tools. And in technological terms we are spoilt for choice, tearing open our presents and discarding the toys before they are fully out of their packages.

Much of our relationship with technology is possibly down to the fact that we don’t really have full understanding or control of it – or at least few of us do. Yet we seldom admit even to ourselves that we are basically confused about the real effectiveness and the direction of travel of this technology, while we all want to appear technophiles and show our commitment to the glorious revolution and the brave new world. But are we wearing the emperor’s clothes? Is there a way of standing back, regaining control and setting a purposeful course?

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