I have an increasing feeling of disquiet when I look at how we relate to technology of late. This is something in which I suspect I am not alone.
While generally positive about new technologies, I find an increasing disquiet about how some of the newer technologies are playing out. I will explain. This is a story that starts in 1712 – before even I was born – but one which has very applicable lessons for us today.
You’re doubtless wondering what happened in 1712. A lay preacher and general do-gooder named Thomas Newcomen developed the first commercial steam engine. There had been earlier iterations, but these were little more than science experiments. Thomas got together with a number of other businessmen and fat heads from his church and they financed the first serious development of a steam engine for industrial purposes.
In so doing they set in process a series of events which would culminate in global warming, the rise of Elon Musk, and the development of electric unicycles. So, if we ever develop the ability to time travel a good first start would be to travel back in time and just kill him.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What has steam power got to do with global warming? I am glad you asked.
Basically if you had steam engines and applied them to industrial issues you leap frogged ahead of your competition in industry. The problem was, you were also going to have to burn something to power that engine. Unbeknown to people at the time, the carbon fuels we burned were going to have a very long term legacy. However, because our systems reward those who produce consumable goods, those using steam got a financial incentive which (guess what) encouraged them to build bigger engines and more of them. And bigger engines burned more carbon fuels. I think you can see where I am going with this. Once you start off down that road, you can’t really turn back.
Our lovely neck bearded millennials might consider, as they blame us boomers for every problem under the increasing hot sun, that if they want to put someone in the frame for global warming they should probably start with that Thomas and his cronies. Nothing we could have done would have changed a thing.
So, essentially we introduced a technology without any real awareness of the long term impact it would have. Fast forward to the 1950’s and the gradual deployment of first weapons and then power stations using nuclear technologies. This time around, due to the somewhat immediate effects that nuclear technologies incorporate, people took a somewhat closer look at the technology before rolling it out – but not to the extent that all problematic aspects needed to be completely resolved.
I will point out that I am not an expert on these matters. My relationship with technology is strictly as a user. There are other examples of similar situations. One, which took a while to emerge, was our use of asbestos as a material. Insurance companies in England are paying out on claims originating from damage that took place in the 1930’s. No one had any idea that the dust from asbestos building materials would be as damaging as it has proved to be.
I may not make myself popular with what I am about to say, but bare with me. Along comes the need for electric vehicles, and we’ve rushed toward that. Regrettably Vancouver is one of the places Tesla has made greatest inroads. They’ve done it with a vehicle that was designed by some very capable software engineers. Their car is not completely ugly, for a car developed by software engineers, but they might have thought of hiring someone with some design experience. Apparently the emphasis was on tech, and not form, resulting in a car that looks like it was put together by a child. Have these people never heard of Pininfarina? Instead they’ve created a plastic MAGA hat, that has all the aesthetic appeal of the Styrofoam box from which a poor quality burger might emerge in a soon to be closed burger franchise. Yes, it has some interesting software technology, but was it too much to ask for them to take a look at what a beautiful car looks like?
If you really want an opinion about the Tesla, just go and ask anyone waiting for a charging station between Vancouver and the Okanagan. I recently heard, while passing a queue of Tesla owners in Hope, a driver say, “I love the environment, but it would have been quicker to walk.” Four hours later he likely got enough charge to get him to Kelowna. All the same, he had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.
Fully electric cars are a nice thought, but many car companies are now questioning whether straight electric really is the answer. Hybrid cars, once thought to be on the way out, are increasingly looking like they may be the solution after all, at least for the next few decades. Mazda will soon be introducing an innovative idea with their MX30, returning to a rotary engine – but purely running a generator to top up the battery. This form of hybrid may well be where the technology moves for the foreseeable future, unless of course you like the idea of queuing waiting for a charge while exchanging happy stories with other EV owners lamenting the fact that they’ll have to scrap their expensive electric car when the battery is toast. It turns out that solving a problem resulting from over production isn’t to go out and spend a whole lot of money on an overpriced product. Who would have thought!
Without sounding like a total Luddite I would point out that technology should serve us. And I don’t mean, it should allow us to serve ourselves. While waiting on the phone for service from a bank recently, and working through countless menus ( please listen attentively as our menu options have changed ), it was abundantly clear that while I may be participating in a money saving process, it was the banks money I was saving. Their ever shrinking workforce was doing less and less, and passing the tasks to their customers more and more. And, by the way, I don’t see any reduction in bank charges. So this technology was doing anything but serving me. And just for good measure, it didn’t work.
I read this morning that the ‘metaverse’ may also be imploding. I’m not really sure it ever took off in the first place. I do remember that about four years ago there was a huge amount of hype about how we were all going to be avatars wandering around in virtual worlds by now. Instead we have serious challenges dealing with the real world, which is a lot more relevant to most of us. In the meantime developers are abandoning the idea of the metaverse in droves, seeing it as another blind alley on the road to technology nirvana.
While in may respects I am an early adopter, I am also quick to ditch technology that doesn’t work. Personally my greatest pleasure is getting out on English Bay sailing. Not particularly new technology there. I do a little programming, which I enjoy, and I also mess around with engines, sometimes steam. So, I am selective, but by no means anti-tech.
Getting a steam engine running and listening to it, setting a mainsail and running in toward Jericho, and any number of other low tech exercises are very grounding. Painting, forming clay with our hands and other tactile activities seem to alleviate stress for many of us.
The ubiquitous spread of social media has, I expect, resulted in more anxiety and personal disruption than many other technologies. It’s something that was unforeseeable, and there’s no point putting Mark Zuckerburg in the stocks over it. Having said that, though, hurling a few decaying vegetables at Zuck’s smug face may have as grounding an effect as some of my other suggestions. And, after all, do we always need a reason to do such enjoyable things? I can’t help but think a truly grounding exercise may be to make a mannequin with Elon or Zucks features, and to use it to hurl organic waste at when I am put on hold by an automated phone system.
You may be asking yourself, then, why the rant? Well, I feel like we’re about to embark on something that may make the errors of people like Newcomen and others look like casual accidents. Artificial Intelligence is something we simply do not yet understand. Heck, we don’t really understand ‘genuine intelligence’, something which appears to be in short supply in the tech industry. What lies ahead is unknown, but is likely to be one genie we will have great difficulty putting back in the bottle. Before we adopt it wholesale, we should think long and hard. Do we really want to go down that road without regulation and strict accountability systems in place?
I think I will go and stitch up a sail. Yes, with a needle and thread.