Rejecting technology is fashionably but foolish
Despite all the iPhone-love we have a contradictory attitude to technology, says Jason Walsh.
I was once at a book reading by Martin Amis and, having finished reading his (rather good) story, he started prattling-on about the third world in the most patronising way possible. Raising my hand, I asked Amis if he objected to economic development in poor countries. Rather than engage with the question, this Booker prize-winning author simply sneered that poor countries could do without McDonalds. Denied the opportunity to respond, I was unable to say that I didn’t give a hoot about McDonalds but that he was intent on denying the poorest people in the world access to the technology that would help to set them free.
So, you ask, Martin Amis is irritating? What has this got to do with technology. A lot, actually.
Martin Amis, author of Invasion of the Space Invaders among other things, is neither an evil imperialist who seeks to keep half of the population of the planet mired in penury, nor is he a technophobe who writes his best-selling novels with a quill. He is, however, mistaken.
But before we get to why, let’s skip back a bit and consider the social and cultural impacts of technology.
The next time you hear someone moaning about the fact that Tomorrow’s World promised them a jet-pack or flying car it might be worth pointing out that the reason they have neither has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the fact that both (non-)inventions would result in a lot of accidental deaths. In short, we already do live in the future.
Soi-disant objectors have long feigned uninterest in technology – people who complain loudly about mobile phones while continuing to use them. In some circles there is a certain credibility to be had from rejecting technology – or, for the less committed, accepting it and then complaining about it. This has rather rapidly mutated into today’s bien-pensant orthodoxy: whinging about the things that have the potential to liberate us.
The current fad for organic food, for-instance, is built on a foundation of prejudice that totally misunderstands the concept of ‘natural’ and ignores the fact that one man – Norman Borlaug – saved more lives than Hitler and Stalin managed to destroy simply by getting us past organic food. For anyone who doesn’t know who Borlaug was, may I suggest using Google… or another wonderful technology, called ‘the book’.
Today, unabashed enthusiasm for technological development is seen as rather embarrassing – at best a kind of extension of many a pubescent boy’s science fiction obsession, at worst a heartless and evil plot to enslave people dreamt-up by the likes of cod-philosopher Ayn Rand.
Such an ahistorical view is also a profound misreading of politics. Figures from the left such as HG Wells were just as keen on huge technological projects as the most committed Randroid. Indeed, Karl Marx saw the development of new technologies as one of the key forces driving society forward. Rejection of technology is not in any way progressive, in fact it is the opposite: conservative.
Who cares about dinner party prejudice, you say. Who indeed? The problem is not that people believe strange things – that the Virgin Mary is angry at Irish bankers or that yoghurt has magical medical properties that doctors don’t understand, for-instance – but that anti-technological sentiment is in danger of doing real damage to the future.
We have a love-fear relationship with technology says James Woudhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University: “Mainly fear. The research and development recession in the West clearly demonstrates this,” he said.
Woudhuysen says that technology has failed to set us free – with a caveat: “That’s because only us can free us. Technology is a means to an end – freedom. It is more than an enabler, but less than a driver. Technology is, more or less, a powerful mediator. Its strength as an instrument affecting society is always governed by the general state of society.”
Martin Amis is wrong because however we feel about McDonalds, the engine of development makes society a better place and technology is a significant factor in that development.
So, Windows 7 crashed and your mobile phone can’t get a signal in the middle of a field in Mayo? Cry me a river. Technological development has changed the world more than anyone ever imagined and more than most people ever notice.
Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. He writes for the Guardian, Irish Times and Irish Examiner and is the editor of forth magazine.