Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Dependence on technology

I was taken for an enlightening spin the other day in a brand new hybrid car (a combination of electric and petrol driven). The car itself didn ’t particularly impress me, except for its wonderful quietness when running on its electric motor, but what did strike me, was my companion’s enthusiasm for the on-board technology.

A grown man with a responsible job and a family, he was as excited as a schoolboy at the fair, and could hardly string together two coherent sentences in his hurry to demonstrate all the digital goodies on the dashboard and steering wheel. He praised the navigation screen, the most exhilarating attribute of which is that it can, ... show you exactly where you are. In addition it has facilities for displaying upcoming motorway exits in 3-D graphics, it can display, in real-time, a diagram of how fast the wheels are revolving and how much fuel is being burned, and much more. The radio has all sorts of computer-driven features which automatically tune in to the closest frequency for each station, the CD player can hold and automatically switch six discs, and all these features can be operated from a panel of buttons on the steering wheel. The list of mod cons goes on and on.

I have no aversion to technology (here I sit, working at my computer, using the internet), but what struck me was the assumption that the more technology, the better. One of my initial thoughts, as we drove down a quiet country lane where I often enjoy exceeding the speed limit because there’s never anyone around, was: It won’t be long before cars will be fitted with electronic speed controls, which will enforce speed limits automatically. Not that this matters much, but the idea touches on two dangers of becoming too dependent on technology. Firstly, one is rendered helpless when the technology fails, and secondly one becomes unnervingly susceptible to external control.

Already most people who can afford it, have on-board navigation systems in their cars, which instruct them precisely, in real-time, which route to take to their destination. My generation still knows how to read a map, or use a little common sense to circumvent road works or busy traffic. But a generation that grows up only knowing how to follow instructions on a little screen in their dashboard, might be left hopelessly vulnerable in the future. I am a shticker for personal freedom, and if, say, I’m driving on a deserted stretch of road and my common sense says there is no danger to me or anyone else, I will put my foot down and drive faster. Because it’s enjoyable, because it’s faster, and so on. However, I’m certain the day will come when in that same situation, a warning voice will sound from my speakers telling me to slow down or face a fine. Or worse, my pedal will be blocked automatically. Then we will have installed Big Brother in our own cars.

Improved technology is a boon as long you’re in charge of it. Still, I guess this is what people said when the first caveman made a flint hammer: “Nice one, Og. Now our kids are going to grow up taking flint hammers for granted. But what are they going to do when the flints run out. Huh? Huh?!” Perhaps I’m just getting old.

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