Thursday, 15 April 2010

In thrall to the machines: Or how to open a packet of biscuits

It says 'Tear here' so I gently pull the red strip, ripping a ragged diagonal line in completely the wrong place. More pulling and the shiny material shreds into a dozen thin strips, dislodging crumbs. A bit more and the top third suddenly rips off the packet, causing biscuits to cascade into the tin. So much for following the instructions. Then why did I tear here? Because it told me to, along with all the 'Lift this flap', 'Open other end' and numerous additional petty directives that rule the lives of us consumers.

Einstein has been quoted as saying "It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." I'm not sure that this wasn't his response to nuclear weapons and Mutually Assured Destruction, but are we as some commentators suggest in danger of becoming a variant of the degenerative, docile Eloi in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine? From birth we are brought up to obey a myriad of procedures that give the appearance of improving our quality of life but have their rationale in manufacturing efficiency and the corporate balance sheet, locking us into a sophisticated socioeconomic profile that overrides individualism. Until the machines we increasingly rely upon achieve a much more sophisticated level of communication, are we are instead instructed to think in machine-like ways to achieve a viable interface? If so, at what cost to fundamental human traits such as initiative? Essentially, were the blank-faced bureaucrats of 2001: A Space Odyssey a more accurate prediction than Arthur C. Clarke's technophiliac Profiles of the Future?

Lest I sound like a socialist luddite, I have to admit to both utilising and enjoying much of the digital technology on offer, but as a means to an end, not an end in itself. And I only go so far - no Bluetooth headset for me! But then I also don't have a Wii, Playstation, DS, wall-mounted flatscreen television, Blueray DVD…yet I don't think I'm missing out on anything. But then I also don't consider it necessary to spend my time on public transport telling friends over the phone that yes, I'm on public transport!

The gee-whiz factor of bigger, faster and louder associated with the macho 'hard' technology of industrialisation has been largely superceded by digital and virtual technology that appeals to both genders. The irony is that whilst the latter is alleged to promote empowerment of the individual, we are in many ways just as subservient to the manufacturing corporations as ever. Where and when devices and software become available are driven by economic factors such as long-term release cycles, meaning upgrades appear staggered over a year or so rather than clumped together in a single update. So far this has done little to abate the enthusiasm for digital communications, entertainment, and navigation technology, despite the impact on consumer debt and the enormous amount of time spent continually learning how to use it all. (I'm not a violent man, but in my opinion most instruction manual authors should be strangled at birth).

But then it is astonishing how fast items such as mobile phones have been taken up by the general public for leisure use, much to the surprise of manufacturers who initially assumed a business-orientated user model. The proliferation of non-core functions has shown that most people find it easy to assimilate cutting edge technology, despite remaining as in the dark as ever regarding the varied theoretical and practical underpinnings. Surely there must be a danger in increasingly placing more and more of our daily lives in the hands of the few who sell us the hardware and software, whilst having no idea how any of it works?

A major cause for concern, as always, is that this ignorance has allowed the proliferation of scare-mongering stories concerning potential health hazards. As far as I am aware, drivers using mobile phones are in far greater danger than the average user is from the radiation emission, yet the debate continues. And speaking of vehicles, the fallibility of satellite navigation devices has yet to be properly addressed, despite police warnings. Drivers seem frequently to be so subservient to their satnav as to leave all common sense behind, as I found to my cost when an articulated lorry driver followed the directions for a shortcut down my obviously too narrow residential street and promptly wrote my car off. The over-reliance on devices or software can also lead to problems if there is not a non-digital back-up. I remember some years ago visiting a branch of a well-known restaurant chain whose staff utilized electronic ordering pads: due to a software failure they were having to work with old-fashioned pencil and paper, leading to a 45 minute backlog for diners. Clearly, basic arithmetic isn't the only skill to suffer these days!

The fact that extremely fine motor skills are usually essential for effective operation of computer and other interfaces, screen readers not withstanding, is frequently overlooked. This, as much as technophobia, can prove a fundamental stumbling block to the elder generations who are encouraged to join the 'online community' or suffer ostracism. But then however good it may be for someone who is infirm or housebound to have a webcam/Skype or even an internet connection, nothing can wholly substitute for direct face-to-face interaction. Indeed, are today's children growing up lacking (even more) social niceties, having largely replaced personal interaction with digital proxies such as texting and social networking websites? I suppose the proof will be in the next few years when the first wholly-immersed such generation reach adulthood...

The development of Web 2.0 technologies, whereby the internet becomes a two-way interface, is a powerful tool for human interaction and grass-reports campaigning, and certainly one of the best things to come out of the digital revolution. But the sheer speed of the paradigm severely limits error-checking, leading to a vast amount of noise and thus sensory overload and overproduction of information. The slick multi-media presentation of information on the web can appeal far more, especially to children, than the old-fashioned printed word, which can lead to a lack of critical thinking. After all, if it looks pretty and sounds good, then surely it must be true? There have always been errors in text books and science popularisations, but the self-proofing of Web 2.0 material can only be worse by several degrees of error. As yet the delivery technology is far superior to the ability to quality control the content. Whether the ease of access to content outweighs the shortcomings is another area that will no doubt receive a great deal of attention in the next few years, from educationalists and parents alike.

Clearly, the future for humanity lies with a post-industrial society (as per Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave), wherein information and virtual products are at least as important the material world. But with high technology in the hands of powerful multinational corporations and public knowledge largely restricted to front-end user status, we face a serious possibility of losing social and cognitive skills as more aspects of our lives become inextricably bound with the wonderful worlds of electrons and silicon. As for any Second Lifers out there, I'll save virtuality addiction for another time...