Saturday, 3 January 2015

The tyranny of technology and the pace of progrss

There was a time when the pace of technological change was leisurely. In the Middle Ages, a craftsman could teach his son his trade, confident that the son could use the same tools as the father. The majority would be unchanged but even those that had been improved in some way would be broadly the same: progress occurred at a human rate, based on generations.

One of the few modern pieces on show in Florence
In the St Lorenzo basilica, Pietro Annigoni:
St Joseph showing Jesus his workshop
No more. Today revolutions take place between generations. A late friend of mine was an engineer in the 1930s, and described to me the excitement he felt at discovering the potential of plastics. He built plastic boxes, with a metal hinge so that the cover could be opened. Then another generation of engineers emerged that had been brought up with the new material. They simply extruded an area of the plastic to make it thin and malleable – and there was your hinge. No need for any metal at all.

He realised that what he’d done was to use plastic as though it were another kind of wood. They used it as a material in its own right, taking advantage of its natural properties.

Even worse, anyone over forty or fifty will remember technologies that have not only emerged, but even disappeared again. Anyone remember the old Roneo and Gestetner duplicators? You’d type (yes, another technology that has all but vanished) your text onto a “skin”, without an ink ribbon, so that the waxed surface was struck through with the shape of the letters. Then you’d load it onto an ink-filled cylinder and print off your 500 or 1000 copies. When I decided it was time my college had a subversive and humorous alternative to its rather stodgy newsletter, I ripped off its Roneo machines, stealing its paper and its ink, wholly without authorisation, though I did have the tacit understanding that the principal had decided to take no action against me…

Yes, not that subversive really.

Well, the duplicator has vanished. Who’d use one with photocopies or, better still, printers available? And, rather like the younger engineers letting plastic stand on its own merits, wouldn’t the self-appointed subversive student today stick his riotously funny pieces on a website anyway, without ever bothering to print them out in the first place?

Some technologies cling on, though. One that seems to be proving persistent is the telephone. By which I mean the landline. It doesn’t show any sign of disappearing any time soon, and yet there are few innovations of the last century or so that I’d sooner be shot of. It’s imperious, tyrannical, demanding and generally it wins immediate attention. Like a baby’s crying, it doesn’t allow us to ignore it. That awful jangling starts and, whatever we’re doing, we have to jump up to answer it.

It’s not like that with mobiles. The sound can be turned down. It can even be turned off. In any case, it’s generally a more gentle ringtone, which we may have chosen. In addition, since reception isn’t as reliable as for a landline, it sometimes doesn’t work – you go on undisturbed with whatever you were doing, only noticing some time later – on occasions, a great deal of time later – that you missed a call. At which point, you can decide whether to phone back or wait till a more convenient moment.

Emails, of course, sit patiently waiting for you to read them when you want to.

Far more civilised.

Demanding our attention for a century and more
Doesn't it look smug?
I was reminded of all this when I recently read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. This remarkable book has the reader as protagonist (it’s a second person narrative), and what the reader’s trying to do is get through a novel – instead being condemned to read the start of one novel after another, without ever getting beyond the first chapter.

One of those initial chapters has the phone as a principal character. The protagonist explains that he is dominated by that shrill ringing, sometimes looking up and wondering who’s calling when he hears a phone in a neighbour’s house. And, in the narrative, as he’s out jogging, he hears a phone ringing in an empty house he runs by. It rings and rings. He has to go and look. He finds a back door open and wanders in. There it is, jangling at him. So he answers.

And the call, inevitably, is for him.

You see? Calvino has it right. This isn’t a convenient invention making life easier. It’s a tool of domination, reaching into your life and demanding your attention. But I suppose we’ll put up with it, at least for as long as calls to mobiles remain so much more expensive than calls to landlines, and the remaining reception problems haven’t been solved.

Technological progress is fast. But in one case, at least, I feel it isn’t  fast enough.

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