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How should we view technology?

For me the key lesson is that, whilst technologies bring many benefits, we become dependent on them and invariably are highly blinkered in recognizing the obvious downsides of technical progress, and are slow to react to the unexpected negative features of our ingenuity. Therefore in the remainder of this book, my intention is to highlight examples of technology that seem desirable, and show that many have dark sides that are not in our best interests. Some problems have arisen from ignorance, others from greed and a desire for instant profit, plus an apparently inherent desire to exploit others for personal or corporate gain. This is mirrored in our aggressive actions of warfare and physical or economic enslavement of others. The pattern is not new. Stone axes made fine weapons as well as tools for survival. The only difference between the scale and destruction of historical conflicts and modern ones is that weaponry and propaganda have greatly advanced. Indeed our technological progress has very often been funded and developed with military aims in mind; subsequent benefits were just by-products. As a trivial example, few people realize that something as familiar as photochromic sunglasses, which darken in the sun, are a by-product of the result of attempts to make glasses to stop soldiers being blinded by the flash of nuclear explosions.

From a positive perspective, technological advances have brought innumerable improvements to our lives; therefore we need understanding and ever deeper insights into how we respond socially, as well as in the details of the various sciences and production processes.

On the basis that knowledge is power, the assumption is that we should be eager to learn new ideas and processes, and scientific advances will always be welcomed and beneficial. This is false on each count. Quite surprisingly, we have a great reluctance to learn new ideas, preferring the security of familiar ones (even when they are wrong). Similarly, many technologies are developing for commercially driven reasons, not for the customers. Certainly, new ideas are needed if existing techniques are inadequate, for example, to increase the capacity of Internet connections, as the system is continuously battling with a usage demand growing faster than the technologies can sustain. Here the options are very limited, and reduced usage may be enforced by pricing or other restrictive practices.

Many others ‘advances’ are non-essential and intended to boost sales of a product. Often the replacement items are incompatible with existing systems, which then become obsolete. Computer and mobile phone systems immediately provide such examples. Not only is this unfortunate, as the cumulative effects can mean a great deal of information loss, but it also results in losses of former skills. Less often considered by the industries is that the changes can isolate and undermine large sections of the population, particularly the elderly and less affluent.

There are many variants of such losses; I plan to outline a few of the reasons for them and the driving factors that deprived us of accumulated skills and knowledge. Far less dramatic, but equally effective, are the mechanisms that gradually erode knowledge and history because we have advanced in the technologies of our lifestyles or modified our religious or political ideas. There are a multitude of examples, ranging from the loss of skills in making flint tools (because we no longer need them) to loss of records, documents, and photographs because computer upgrades have made our files and storage systems obsolete.

One clear trend emerges throughout this book: the faster we make technological advances, the shorter the survival time of records and information. In an era when we glorify rapid technological progress and embrace it as soon as possible, we rarely realize that this is condemning our stored information to rapid oblivion. We may have photos ofVictor- ian ancestors, even their love letters, but the present trend is that our current digital images and correspondence will probably be unreadable in 20 years’ time, and certainly will be lost to our grandchildren and future historians.

Electronics will appear in various guises, as it impacts on many technologies that are rapidly advancing on an unprecedented scale. Within the lifetime of many, we have gone from virtually no TV just 60 years ago, no home-based powerful computers until 30 years ago, and no mobile phones until this century. The changes have happened so fast that we are completely overwhelmed and impressed. We want more, and are moving so rapidly that we never consider what would happen if we were forced back into the technological world of our grandparents (or earlier!).

Losses of past knowledge encompass language, culture, literature, art, and music, as well as the tangible decay and destruction of documents. The field is so wide that my choice of examples is quite personal, but they all fit the same overall pattern. Although harder to quantify, but equally important, are the ways in which new technologies are isolating and separating different blocks of society and replacing human contacts with merely electronic ones. A 2015 survey reveals that 14-year- olds in the UK spend eight hours a day looking at computer or mobile phone screens (and there are more short-sighted young people than before). This change in interactive behaviour has repercussions that are extremely difficult to predict. More obvious as immediate losers are the old and the poor, who cannot cope or cannot afford new equipment. They suffer increasing isolation from the technological world. Such problems are overlooked by the inherent arrogance and optimism of the young, driven by commercial and governments interests. By the time the consequences are appreciated, the effects may be irreversible.

The following chapters explore some of these ideas and the consequences of technological advances, together with the dark side we fail to see in our enthusiasm from the marketing of gadgets, new toys, ‘must- have’ electronics, and new software forced upon us by ‘upgrades’.

 
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