15 Jan 2013 Tomorrow’s world – be careful what we wish for
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