Friday, 16 April 2010

technology and its impact

In the modern world, we tend to take technology for granted and are never aware of its social impact unless we have experience of the world before a new invention becomes widely used. This has been the case since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the development of the steam engine, which accelerated the trend away from the countryside into new industrial towns and cities and fuelled a huge increase in population wherever this invention was used to power new factories.

However, it was only with the advent of the railways that significant changes in the daily lives of ordinary people began to kick in. Before the 1830s, few travelled further from where they were born than the distance they could walk in half a day. Only those rich enough to own a horse or afford stagecoach travel ventured further afield. Although early third-class travel must have been uncomfortable, it became not only possible but also affordable to visit the next town, a business opportunity that Thomas Cooke was quick to exploit, although later patrons of the agency that bears his name no longer need to be temperance campaigners.

The second influence of the railways was on time. There is no point in trying to run a rail passenger service if you can’t tell people when each train will depart, but in the pre-railway age every town and village had its own time: whatever the local church clock said. The solution? A standard time for the whole country. Whether the trains ran according to the timetable was a different problem.

Nowadays, trains are part of the landscape, so we are unlikely to reflect on what life might have been like without them. And the entire modern world is run on timetables, from work shifts to television schedules, from the opening hours of shops and supermarkets to when the local bar has its ‘happy hour’. If we think at all, we think only that it has always been this way as we hurry from one place to another.

In the twentieth century, the automobile changed the game again, although its effects were different in Europe and in the open expanses of the United States. When Henry Ford introduced his Model T in 1908, it was the first car to be mass produced and was deliberately marketed at a price that made it easily affordable by the average American, which paved the way for the automobile to become an icon of the American way of life. In Europe, meanwhile, the motor car remained a plaything of the well-to-do until after the Second World War. Only a handful of people now alive will remember what a world without cars was like, and cars are now regarded as an essential, even if it is necessary to take out a bank loan to buy one. However, an unfortunate side-effect of the mass ownership of cars was a steady decline in the railways and the eventual closure of branch lines that were no longer profitable.

Radio was another key technology of the twentieth century, although its impact was relatively modest compared with the later development of television. Both brought mass entertainment into the home, effectively killing off the self-devised entertainment that had been the norm in the nineteenth century. The result has been that the user is no longer required to think. Sitting passively in front of a TV set is a fatally easy way to waste a lot of time, and you have to be at least 60 years old to remember what it was like when television was the latest novelty, so you are not likely to reflect on how it affects your life.

Like television, personal computers were available but not widely used for about ten years. By today’s standards, the PCs of the 1980s had very limited capabilities and required some technical knowledge to use, but they were a huge step up from a typewriter for producing written material. I ditched my typewriter for a PC in 1984 for this reason, but it was another seventeen years before I felt the need to upgrade to take advantage of the PC’s newer capabilities, like organizing music, video and photographs. If you were born in the 1980s or later, you probably can’t imagine how those primitive early machines could be used to do useful work, just as you probably never think about the excitement generated by the tiny black and white televisions of the 1950s or the enthusiasm created by Stephenson’s Rocket and other early steam locomotives.

And then we have the mobile phone. I remember covering the then new invention in the 1980s as a journalist for an electronics magazine, and nobody thought that they would have the impact they ultimately have had, or that they would become so ubiquitous—unsurprising, really, given that those early models were the size of a house brick and twice as heavy. Like the technologies already discussed, mobile phones allow the user to do things they previously weren’t able to, but, unlike the earlier inventions, the real social impact has not been on what people can do but on how they behave—on what is considered acceptable behaviour.

Put bluntly, people are ruder and more impatient than they were a quarter of a century ago. And mobile phones are a key factor in this change. How often have you been engaged in conversation when the phone in the other person’s pocket starts ringing? And what happens next? Your companion answers the phone, and your conversation is terminated, perhaps permanently. I regard this as impolite. I sometimes call my wife in her office and receive no answer. I know that she is in her office, but she never picks up the phone if she is talking to someone. This is unusual nowadays, when people will even respond to emails while someone they are supposed to be talking to is in the room, but I think that it is the proper thing to do in this situation.

And then there are the people who think it acceptable to use a mobile phone while driving. This is more than rude; it is inconsiderate and highly dangerous. Yet people do it because they can. Whether they should is not considered. Now almost everyone has a mobile phone, yet few stop to think how important they have become in their lives. The behaviour that I have described has become an automatic response, like Pavlov’s dogs in response to the ringing of a bell.

I’m old enough to remember a time when car ownership was far from universal, when the principal form of home entertainment was the radio, when computers were large and remote, tended by men in white coats in air-conditioned rooms, so I tend to view new technologies with a degree of scepticism, but if for you those technologies have always been around, you will probably wonder why I’m even bothering to discuss them. However, you might want to think about how it will affect your life when the next big thing comes along.


  1. And how about this iPad phenomenon? Apple has a knack for inventing gadgets you never fathomed needing and subsequently can't live without. I'm waiting for the iPad mini to be released.

    Oh, wait, it already has. It's called the iPhone.

  2. Technology kills creativity.... Sadly, some people have never had to think. I wish I was a dead pioneer.

  3. Agreed, Dennis. The real lag in the technology revolution isn't in the technology itself, but in our failure to fully consider its impact in our everyday lives.

    1. Kris, the impact of some of the early technologies discussed in this piece took a generation or more to be felt and understood, but the pace of change is now so much faster, yet our ability to adapt to this change remains stuck in the nineteenth century.


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