Are you as glad 2022 has arrived as I am? After the last two years, it feels as if the most appropriate individual, sadly no longer with us, to deliver an opening address for this new year would have been Rikki Fulton’s Rev IM Jolly with his iconic and withering “Hullo”. Rarely do I bid as jovially a farewell to the expiration of a passing year as 2021, but while toasting and welcoming in 2022 with my wife, I was enthused by that air of optimism which infuses any prospect of a new beginning.
At this hopeful juncture, however, one surge still leaves me uneasy – technological advance. During the festive season, I watched that cheesy nineties romantic comedy ‘You’ve Got Mail’ in which a New York columnist, somewhat rhetorically, asks: “Name me one thing, other than electricity, we have gained from technology?” The sixteenth-century philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon, once said: “Money is a great servant but a bad master.”
If he were still alive now, might he say the same of technology?
Without wishing to sound like an aspiring affiliate of the Amish, let me be clear how grateful I am for the many benefits afforded by technological advance. For example, how many of us lost while driving in an unfamiliar city have been aided by accessing satellite navigation on a smartphone or appreciate being able to look up the nearest petrol station when our dial begins to prick the empty icon?
Rather, my contention is with limited levels of accountability, the pace of change and cost attached to it.
On limited levels of accountability, I spoke to a high heid yin at the Bank of England this time last year, who said: “Our grasp of technology has advanced by about ten years in the last ten months.” We agreed that technological advance is, for the most part, a symbol of progress but shared concerns about the distance exhibited by those developing tomorrow’s world when important questions about our emergent digital-by-default society arise, in addition to their notable absence when things go wrong.
On the pace of change, I recall my late grandmother Else once lamenting the washing machine’s creation. I laughed at the time but when she explained how, rather than simplifying life as anticipated, its arrival sped everything else up because she would move onto other things but was still left with more to do, like drying and preparing clothes after completing its cycle, I could not help but sympathise. Her primary point was that technology increases the pace of life and its related stress.
On the cost attached, have you noticed the increasing array of self-service machines in supermarkets with security cameras displaying digital mirror-images of us? If not, try M&S in the Murraygate. Do privacy concerns about businesses moving from key cards to retinal scans so employees can access their workplace, mobile phones using finger-print access verification or our politicians commissioning Apple and Google to develop track and trace or vaccine passport apps make us enemies of progress?
Speaking again of movies, I always admired how light years ahead those behind ‘The Terminator’ series were. Their central message was about the reliance humans place upon technology and what happens when that technology turns against its creator.
Imagine instead a society levitating between technophiles pulling us toward the blue skies of progress and libertarians affirming the solid ground of freedom, in which there also resides a healthy awareness of technology’s capacity to emancipate as well as to enslave. It is this balance required to restrain the runaway freight train of a digital welfare system where work coaches mostly engage with claimants via online journals or a digital health system where GPs primarily meet senior citizens via Zoom.