Ever started the day scrolling Facebook/Instagram/Twitter? Procrastinated for longer than you’d care to contemplate staring at post after photo after tweet of hollow vanity? Imagine what someone your age in the 1980s would think if you’d shown them a snapshot of 2015? Face after face locked to screen – not unlike the kind of dystopian nightmare Orwell wrote about. And, have you ever considered the fact that self-checkouts and ticket machines, ‘convenient’ though they may be (apparently), might actually be costing peoples’ jobs – as store after store, station after station, replace man after woman with machine?
I’m no nimbyist technophobe, and like everyone else I’m guilty of being dependent on technology in ways I wish I wasn’t. But I want to challenge the narrative which for so long has been fed to us unquestioned – that all technology is ‘progress’. Is it?
Technology is a tool which can be progressive. Social media has the power to unite swathes of people cross-continent for a common good – its role in revolutions in recent times cannot be diminished. Advances in medical technology have revolutionised our health, and there is no doubt that the internet has made a mass of knowledge, previously the reserve of few, widely accessible.
It can be progressive, but not in and of itself. A recent study by Oxford University concluded that technological breakthroughs endanger 47% of total employment – is that progress? Almost half of the UK without a job, possibly the worst employment crisis in history? Ever more advanced machinery is replacing hands in industry and manufacturing, Amazon is seriously considering replacing its courier services with drones and the likes of Google and Tesla are working on ‘self-drive lorries’ because they are ‘safer’ (human error is the primary cause of road accidents). The number of jobs that would threaten is frankly scary.
Ask yourself, to whose benefit is the replacement of labour with technology? We are told is that it is for our benefit – the consumer. No more long queues at shops, garages, airports; saving us time, money and oh so much stress – hurrah! But how often do we actually save time by using a self-checkout? How often do we find that there is no option on the touch screen which answers our query? We want to speak to a human, capable of empathy, but there is no one to be seen. It certainly isn’t for the benefit of workers, so whose benefit is it for?
For the companies. For McDonalds, for Tesco, Sainsbury’s, ASDA, the car manufacturers which choose robots over workers. So that they may employ less people and more technology to do a more efficient job, create better products and ultimately increase their profit margins. Cast your minds back to the industrial revolution, and it was the same old story – mechanisation meant reducing the cost of labour and increasing profit. Only, the technological revolution is going at a rate wildly faster than the industrial revolution and so the impacts of this cost-cutting formula are magnified.
We see this not only in labour-saving technology, but in the technology that we all buy into and love. The iPhone 5c comes out, followed by the 5s, then the iPhone 6, and now the 6s – each one convincing us that we need it more than the one before. But do we? Or do Apple just need our money? We are told with products like smartphones that our lives will be simpler, less complicated. Yet somehow I think that the barrage of texts, emails, and never ending streams of social media makes for a far more complicated existence – a world which we are never really logged out of.
If ‘less complicated’ means not having to interact with other human beings then sure, life’s less complicated. No more awkward small talk with our neighbour on the train, or asking for directions (Google Maps has it covered) or approaching that guy or girl across the bar (Tinder).
When I look at the technological revolution up to now, I feel a sense of waste. Take electric cars, a technology which has been talked about for many years, with the capacity to potentially offset the worst of the climate crisis. Yet all these years later, despite countless models of iPhones coming and going and so much ‘technological advancement’ in that area, electric cars have barely been developed. A technology with the power to do real good is shunted aside in favour of technology which makes our consumerist dominated lives ‘easier’ and has the potential for greater profit margins.
We don’t have to accept this narrative as truth. Is the latest iPhone going to bring me lasting happiness? Probably not. Who says machines should replace workers if it means that 47% of our jobs are going to be obsolete in the future? What kind of blind logic describes that as ‘progress’? I’ll take standing in a queue for an extra three minutes thank you very much.
Image: skeeze via Pixabay