Technological Revolution: An Uncertain Future

I received several comments responding to my blog post, Technological Revolution, refuting my admittedly generalised assertion that technology should be “embraced wholeheartedly”. I agree with this point, because there are many drawbacks to technology, not least due to human fallibility and propensity to foolishness. I retract my unequivocal statement as it is incorrect. It could be argued that we are not always as wary of technology as we should be, hence my oversight. I was sign-posted to a very interesting article in the New York Times on the subject written by Jonathan Franzen, originally a lecture, which everyone should read.

Limiting my argument strictly to the relationship between technology and the written word, however, the idea of online self-publication is both astounding and disturbing. Everyone must have their corner of the digital universe in which to have their say, adding to the torrent of information, opinions and sometimes lies populating the internet. I am not exempting myself from the slew, merely reflecting upon my own integration into a peculiar and sometimes unsettling aspect of modernity.
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In some ways, however, these advancements have led to the democratisation of the written word and this is largely positive for humankind. Almost everyone in the Western world has access to the internet and all that goes with it. Gone are the days when the clergy could control all access to print material. The bible was written in Latin rather than plain English so only scholarly men could harvest its power. There was a time when only the wealthy could afford to buy books, right up until the pioneering release of cheap publications by Penguin’s Allen Lane in the early twenty first century. Now, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can keep a blog, comment on a huge variety of other platforms and even publish a book themselves.

In fact, the prevalence of print itself is slowly fading into the history books. The environmental campaigns to halt the voracious destruction of trees combined with the fast-paced nature of modern communication suggests that soon the humble book or journal will be no more. This has sped up the pace of knowledge and interred a transience to informative authority, as now most things can be instantly and continually updated.

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Sometimes I feel like we all seem to be part of one collective hive, our minds plugged into a giant super-brain that stems back to Tim Berners-Lee’s conception of the internet itself. Almost as soon as you have a thought, you can be wondering about how to post it online. Rather than struggling to remember fun times with your family and friends, you can just scroll through a photo album on Facebook. Instead of identifying your own solution to a problem, you can Google the answer to the question in seconds (I’ve found branching out to other search engines hopelessly futile). We are always connected to the digital ether, whether through smart-phone, tablet, PC or, soon, accessories like eye-wear and watches.

I find it all astounding, partly due to the lack of quality control, but also from wondering just where all this information is kept, and what happens to the mounds of noughts and ones when their owners forget about them. Are they collected up by a digital version of a Henry Hoover, clearing up the internet for the next generation of bloggers and social networkers? Perhaps our petty thoughts and opinions might be appropriated by some governmental Big Brother for nefarious advertising mind-control. Does anyone really care? Apocalyptic destruction of all meaning in a Foucauldian dystopic universe is not really one of my worries, but I am interested in the alteration of collective consciousness that is rapidly taking hold.

Imagine being transported back to the time of the first novel ever published, for which there are many contenders but Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) being one of them, before the motor car, aeroplane or television set. It was completely unthinkable to have such swathes of written information. We’d struggle to comprehend the insidiousness of general ignorance, through lack of information and communication channels, but we are ill-prepared to deal with the consequences of what we have done.
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It makes me wonder what we will pass on to our children. Instead of a treasured collection of stories or poems, will we suggest a URL for them to visit for when they’re bored, reading softly to them before bedtime not from a book but an iPad? I also question why we sometimes still allow ourselves to remain so ignorant despite this wealth of knowledge at our fingertips. So often are we sitting glued to the latest offering of Buzzfeed rather than learning as much as we can in this brief blink of consciousness before we die. Will we retain the ability to discern the wheat from the chaff, or drown in a deluge of self-promoting blog posts, food photographs and emotional status updates? Is there even enough time for it all? Maybe Google can tell me.

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2 Comments

  1. A fantastic blog! Perhaps too scary to truly confront, but the idea of pointing our children to URLs isn’t too alien to comprehend. It’s certainly already the norm with peers. Indeed, it’s “uncool” if you haven’t seen something at a particular URL these days, like a particular buzzfeed or Youtube video.

    My biggest concern about technology and society’s uptake of it, is that people don’t know enough about it. People can look at numbers and compare “which phone has the most cores in its processors” but not a clue what that would actually mean. Similarly with modern science in general, it’s become quite arcane and esoteric – knowledge that very few hold to a high standard. The massive risk posed by that situation is that in (what is meant to be) a democratic society, the people need to understand what to change and how to change things. If they don’t understand things like science and technology (upon which modern life is based and will almost certainly be the corner-stone of the future, how can they make informed decisions about where to go with it? What budgets should be for technological spending, or who’s got the best scientific and research-based policies? These will be incredibly big issues in the future, as they should be now, but people need the knowledge and capacity to make the right choices.

  2. You raise some very good points. I suppose one issue you might be referring to is people not really knowing how much of their data is really being monitored and perhaps being unaware of policies being slipped under the radar.

    However I know you are referring to wider issues of technology/science and society. I think one reason for general ignorance is that people are scared of the topics and they also seem to be fairly “male.” How many girls do you hear chatting about core processors? I’m certainly not one of them.

    And yet also because the changes are so rapid it’s hard to keep up. When I was a kid, there was no such thing as smartphones, 3D printers or sat nav. Suddenly you turn around and a robot is cooking you breakfast.

    So where do we go from here? Perhaps we could have Key Stage 3 style text books laying out the basics of technology and science for the average citizen. Thoughts?

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