Tomorrow’s world – be careful what we wish for

Tomorrow’s world – be careful what we wish for

Posted by Ian Burdon in AP Automation 15 Jan 2013

Back in the sunny long ago when I was a student and Tomorrow’s World on the BBC offered us silicon chips with everything, I remember a discussion with friends about how “New Technology” would usher in a new leisure society. We were young and wide-eyed and didn’t think it through, didn’t consider the capability of  technology to damage while it transformed.

With perfect hindsight it seems there was a bigger change underway. I grew up in the sixties in Derby. My father was a technical illustrator for Rolls Royce. He drew expanded schematics of the inner workings of Rolls Royce Spey and Avon aero engines with Rapidograph pens and india ink.  His job disappeared with the coming of Autocad. He was from a mining village in County Durham and whenever we visited my grandparents we took the train up through Rotherham and Sheffield where the steel foundries and fabricators pounded their molten business all day and night. In that world the paintings of LS Lowry and the lesser known Arthur Berry had a documentary, representational quality.

From the front of my Gran’s house I could see the pits still working while from the back the steam train hauled coal from Stanley to the steel works at Consett and hauled finished steel the other way. A relative drove one of those steam trains.

They are all gone and along with them the cultures, communities and shared identity that went with them.

As they passed, along with shipbuilding, there was a parallel shift as the shops and stores which were part of the existing social fabric either disappeared under the assault of the new chains or themselves became chains on identikit High Streets. The Co-op store which was at the centre of my Gran’s town is in Beamish Museum now to entertain the heritage tourists.

And now we have lost HMV, hard on the heels of Jessops and Comet with all of the human cost of their closure. The reasons for their decline are complex but in the case of two of those chains I have used online alternatives in the last few weeks because the high street store either didn’t have the product I wanted or could not compete on price.

The reason I write this is not in a fit of maudlin nostalgia but because I work in an industry which continually -and very effectively- develops technology to make existing processes more “efficient”. In the case of e-Invoicing which has been discussed here extensively of late, that efficiency has consequences for current invoice clerks just as serious as those being faced today by displaced retail employees.

I am firmly of the view that we have not yet even begun to see the consequences of what technology has for some time been capable and we certainly haven’t considered fully what this means – for good or ill. Like “Tomorrow’s World” we have a tendency towards an Enlightenment view of “progress” . We should try not to be quite so wide-eyed and, as ever, be careful what we wish for.

Ian Burdon can be found on twitter @IanBurdon

  • Nexus789 January 16, 2013 at 12:35 am /

    Inventions and the impact they have is an interesting topic. The common belief is that the Internet has added to economic growth. The reality is that it has not. Growth during the Internet era has stagnated when compared to previous eras based on technologies that utilised steam, coal, electricity, etc. We have created the unified power grid, invented shipping containerisation, the train, the car, the airplane, etc. The profound changes in travel, the ubiquitous adoption of electrical appliances and the efficient movement of physical goods has occurred. Any changes to these and other technologies and their impacts will be incremental. New and unique game changing inventions are now few and far between.

    What of the Internet? The Internet has speeded up the movement of information, allowed inventories, for instance, to be based on data visibility rather than having physical stock. Industries that had a physicality to them such as media, publishing, music, etc, have or are now being digitised. The reality is that we have created time and lots of data. However, the Internet in its current configuration now conspires to make us waste this time – people for instance spend ages on social media sites which adds zero to economic growth. In effect we have become very good at wasting our own time. The reality is that the data collected by the social media companies is largely pointless – all these companies do is consume millions of kilowatts to this data. Finally, the ‘digitisation’ of some industries has the potential to contribute little to economic growth but a very high potential to make many more people idle and disconnected from a means of earning an income.

  • […] Thanks to Pete for permission to reprint. The original can be found here. […]

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