Does progress always have to be savage?

Navvies monument

Navvies monument (Photo credit: phill.d)

Whenever there is a great leap by mankind, someone, somewhere suffers. Empires rise and fall, companies thrive, plateau and die. Whole industries die out to make way for new ways of doing things. It happens over and over. In the long run, the human race as a whole blossoms, but in the short-term, someone, somewhere gets hurt. The incredible feats of Victorian engineering that came about during the Industrial Revolution only exist because of hoards of navvies. Working in appalling conditions for pitiful pay, these manual workers toiled away to produce some marvellous structures. The mortality rate was sky-high. More navvies died building the Woodhead Tunnel than during the Battle of Waterloo.

Jobs in manufacturing disappeared thanks to the rise in mechanised assembly lines. Printing jobs went up in smoke because of the digital age. Where it once took an army of workers to produce a large print run of newspapers, it now only takes a handful. Office workers in their droves saw their jobs vanish due to computerisation. Cars today are much more reliable thanks to the robotised construction techniques, but that means we employ far fewer car assembly workers.

The sheer amount of technology available to us today is mind-boggling. 10 years ago, I only had one multiple electric gang socket. Today, my house is riddled with them. All this technology has an increasingly diminishing shelf life. Many people replace their mobile phones every year if not more often. Today’s laptop will be tomorrow’s landfill.

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned...

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned mobile phones, defective mobile phones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

30 million computers are discarded in the USA every year. Europe manages to ditch 100 million mobile phones. All in all, an estimated 50 million tonnes of electrical waste needs to be disposed of every year. All of this waste contains a cocktail of poisonous substances and useful materials that could be recycled. Unfortunately, much of this waste ends up in developing economies where workers are slowly poisoned whilst earning a pittance to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In this country, we immediately throw our hands in the air whenever there is any kind of project that might affect the resale values of our precious homes. Spare a thought for anyone who stands in the way of a big engineering project in China. They certainly get the job done and progress is made, but at what human cost?

Of course, we eventually clean up our act. If you work on a big construction project today, the laws in place to protect you are legion. We are starting to put together frameworks for the handling of electronic waste. China has even passed a new law, after a tortured 12 year journey through the courts, to better protect the rights of homeowners when faced with compulsory purchase.

But when the trail is being blazed, the damage gets done.

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Where’s the technology I want at CES?

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Veg...

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas Nevada in January 2010 (cc) David Berkowitz http://www.marketersstudio.com (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My technology needs are simple. I want my phone to check the weather half an hour before I get up. If there’s likely to be frost, it will communicate with a gizmo in my car that will not only defrost the windows, but it will warm up the seats and the steering wheel for me. My heating should also be given a little boost so that downstairs is nice and toasty. Five minutes before I get up, I want it to switch the kettle on downstairs. I want it to gradually bring the lights up in the room so that I wake up gently.

My tablet should automatically download today’s copy of the Times rather than dumbly waiting for me to fire it up and press the button. My phone should check my diary to see whether I have any appointments in London. If so, it should check that the trains and tubes are running OK. If for any reason I need to deviate from my normal route it should be ready for me by the time I look at my phone. I want my phone to check the balance on my Oyster card, If it’s running low, it should automatically top it up. The TV should switch on and automatically turn to my favourite news channel.

If it’s dark and I walk into a room, the lights should automatically come on. If a room is empty for any length of time, the lights should switch off. If any bulbs are blown, and we are running low on replacements, something will magically buy some best value ones from eBay. I should be able to watch or read any media on any visual device in the house. My wife and I should be able to start watching something on the TV and half way through independently watch the remainder on our mobile phones.

The fridge should have a touchscreen that shows the contents in order of sell by dates together with suggestions for recipes. There will be buttons next door to everything so that we can add them to the next order from the supermarket. The cooker will be told what temperature to warm the oven up to and how long the dish needs. The microwave should be clever enough to work out what’s inside it and set the timer accordingly.

The car should go and fill itself up with fuel. As it sits there most of the time not doing anything, it should also automatically check all those annoying comparison sites and renew my insurance and my tax disc. The car should also book itself in for a service, preferably on a day I’m taking the train into London.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Everything connected up intelligently. The frustrating thing is that much of this technology is here today. The reason I can’t do all these things is because consumer technology is so disjointed. You might be able to get some of these things individually, but making then all work together is either ridiculously expensive, difficult or both.

So what do I think we’ll see at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas? Higher resolution TVs, flexible phones and a sea of tablets.

The sound of silence

The Noise Within

The Noise Within (Photo credit: Cayusa)

My phone is almost always on silent, which drives my wife mad because I often don’t hear the thing ringing when she’s trying to get hold of me. The main reason is that I don’t really want to disturb anyone else with my ringtone. If I do notice my phone ringing – I try to keep my conversation muted and short if I am in a public space.

Some sounds are pleasant. The sound of water flowing over a babbling brook for example or birdsong on a bright summer’s day. I even quite like the pitter patter sound of rain (if I’m indoors) which is a good job bearing in mind where I live. although people’s tastes differ, almost everyone likes music of one sort or another. I find some people’s voices very pleasant; Lawrence Dallaglio has an amazing voice as does the guy who used to play the lead in Spooks.

Some sounds are unpleasant. Nails scratching down a blackboard make probably the most horrible sound in the world. Breaking glass, screaming and shouting are unpleasant not just because of the sound themselves but also because of what sometimes accompanies such sounds.

As I sat on the train this morning, I was surrounded by a sea of irritating noises. There was the guy who sat opposite who juggled two mobile phones. He was constantly speaking on one of them whilst the other one rang, at which point I assume he told the person on one phone to hold on whilst he answered the other one. I can’t really tell because although his voice was so loud that I heard every word, he was speaking in a foreign language.

Then there was the young girl with ear-bud headphones on. Her music was so loud that just about everyone in the carriage could hear the tinny sound of whichever song happened to be playing. I couldn’t recognise the exact track, but it sounded appalling, and she must be almost entirely deaf. If she isn’t, she will be before long.

They were the main noise polluters but almost everyone else’s phone made some kind of chirp, beep or irritating melody during the hour I was on the train. At one point, I gave up reading my book and took a look out through the window. I just happened to notice a sign at the base of the window. It showed a graphic of a mobile phone with a cross through it and the words “Quiet zone, please  respect other passengers”

God knows what it was like outside the quiet zone.

Life without the internet

Current Canadian Yellow Pages logo.

Current Canadian Yellow Pages logo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thirty years ago, most people shopped in the town in which they lived. They might have made the occasional foray further afield and they might have made use of mail order catalogues, but the chances are that the goods that were available to them were limited to what was in the local vicinity. If they wanted to find something, they would reach for the yellow pages that sat under the phone and look for suppliers of that product or service. Once located, they would “let their fingers do the walking” and phone the number listed using their landline.

Taking out a loan or a mortgage meant hopping on a bus into town to visit your not so friendly bank manager. Rates weren’t advertised like they are today so unless you had seen a comparison article in a recent newspaper, the chances of the being clued up about the market were minimal. Besides which, people tended to be very loyal to their bank.

Credit cards were not common so the majority of transactions would be paid by cash or by using a cheque backed by a cheque guarantee card. Cashpoint machines or ATMs were still relatively rare and you were limited to the machines in your bank’s network (which often ran out of money). Most people still went into the branch to withdraw money. The teller would not have a computer, but they would have a naughty list. If your name was on the list, you were unlikely to get your money and were often invited for a bit of friendly financial advice from the bank manager.

Social networks tended to revolve around churches, pubs or places of education. Social interactions would be face to face or over the telephone. For friends and relatives lying further afield, a handwritten letter was the order of the day and everyone allowed 28 days for delivery of anything delivered through the postal system.

If you wanted to know what was going on in the world, you read a newspaper. Booking a holiday meant visiting a shop called a travel agent where you looked through brochures and selected your ideal destination. The assistant would then book it using the phone. Avid readers would pack a stack of paper backs. Music enthusiasts would pack a Walkman together with a pile of cassette tapes.

Schools were unlikely to have computers and if they did, they would not be connected up to other computers. Computer science was a niche subject. Most computing was done overnight. The results would be printed off onto huge piles of paper which would then be processed manually the following day.

It’s fair to say that the Internet has revolutionised the way we socialise. It has also fundamentally changed the way we research and buy products and services. There is a downside to this. Many traditional bricks and mortar businesses have crumbled as the internet as rendered their business model quickly obsolete. The upsides though are hard to ignore. Within seconds, any product or service can be located and purchased no matter how obscure or where it is made. Individuals can start companies, raise capital, publish books, form friendships and find the answer to just about any question in the world.

In my view, we are only scratching the surface. As more open data initiatives take off and the semantic web takes shape, the online possibilities are likely to explode and I for one can’t wait.

Wouldn’t we be better off without computers?

Panellists Peter Hitchens, Rt Hon Ed Balls MP,...

Panellists Peter Hitchens, Rt Hon Ed Balls MP, Rt Hon Theresa May, Baroness (Shirley) Williams of Crosby, and Benjamin Zephaniah, join host David Dimbleby for Question Time, filmed in Westminster Hall for the first time on 3 November 2011 (Photo credit: UK Parliament)

I love watching Prime Ministers questions or Question Time on the BBC, but by far the best debating chamber has always been the local hostelry. Last night, the motion brought by my right honourable friend Sidney of Norfolk was that the world would be a better place without computers. The motion was seconded by my right honourable friend Martin of Lockers. Not only that, but a recent comment on one of my blog posts raises the same motion.

So are they right or wrong?

Technology can be bewildering for many people. For people who do understand technology, the challenge is finding common ground on which to base an explanation. I was once at a conference where I was explaining how a new product worked. A member of the audience looked puzzled and asked me to clarify something I had just said. Taking a mental step backwards and thinking for a moment, I rephrased what I had just said in simpler terms and tried to build his understanding. He still looked puzzled, so I tried to make things simpler. After several iterations, he was none the wiser and I had run out of ways that I could explain the same thing.

So I told him that it worked by magic. With that, acceptance bloomed over his face and we moved on. This lack of common ground leads to suspicion, wariness and a general reluctance on the part of most people to learn. Technologists are guilty too. It’s all too tempting to just grab the mouse and fix whatever needs fixing in a fraction of the time it would take to describe the process.

None of this helps in my defence of the motion, but let me try and justify the existence of computers.

Firstly, without computers, the banking system would collapse (even with computers it might still collapse if Angela Merkel has her way). Any wealth that is held in any kind of account anywhere would disappear overnight. Trade and commerce would have to fall back to barter and the goods being bartered would very soon become very basic. Any currency or plastic cards might as well be discarded. Mobile phones would become little more than paperweights and cars would become roadside ornaments.

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned...

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned mobile phones, defective mobile phones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Energy would become a problem. Refineries would shut down as would oil terminals and power stations. Pharmaceuticals would soon dry up and before long, the only treatment that doctors and hospitals could supply would be sympathy.

Telecommunications would break down which would render the world ungovernable. Distribution networks would disappear, shops would empty and we would quickly revert to hunter-gathering status.

Automated systems providing water and sewerage would break down which would mean that clean water would be very hard to find. Disease would take hold and spread rapidly.  Society would collapse into small tribes. There would be no law other than that enforced by local tribal leaders.

All this sounds rather extreme and like anything, technology can be used for good or ill. Without computers, there would be no nuclear weapons and the world’s carbon footprint would be slashed at a stroke. A large percentage of the population would no longer be baffled by remote controls and mobile phones.

Of course the most powerful argument is that without computers, the right honourable Sidney of Norfolk could not read this – although I doubt he’d agree.