Progress might have been alright once, but it has gone on too long.
Ogden Nash

I always enjoyed machines because I understood them. My childhood hobby was dismantling any machine I could get my hands on, although my talent at putting things together again was less well developed. Sometimes I would apply my screwdriver to household items like the iron or the gramophone, with disastrous results, or I would buy army surplus items from a store down the road – small generators, field telephones or gear systems. My goal was to understand everything by taking it apart. It was just as well I didn’t go into medicine as my mother wanted, although I might have made a good pathologist. As my confidence grew I began to make my own machines by combining parts of others. The one I remember best was a very elaborate time machine that I built when I was about eight, hoping to use it to project myself ahead in time and therefore to short circuit the tedious business of growing up. In the event I short circuited the whole electrical system of the house and gave myself a nasty shock. At the end of it I was in serious trouble with my father, and I was still only eight years old.

Later I had motor cycles and eventually cars to work on, and began to learn some real mechanical skills. Then, in the 1980s, a great electronic curtain came down and I no longer understood anything. Everything became a black box, untouchable and incomprehensible. It must have been much the same for grooms and coachmen when the horseless carriage was invented – their competence simply vanished along with their ontological security. I am rather glad to have lived at a time when I could fix my own car, develop my own photographs, type my own letters without finding an electrical outlet, and even build a simple radio set. But my sense of competence didn’t last long.

It is of course an utter waste of time to grumble about the baleful effects of progress, but everybody does it and I don’t want to be left out. Technological progress is the closest thing we have to the “Life Force” promoted by Bernard Shaw and others in the early 1900s. It is more powerful than we are and it is unstoppable, no matter how much we would like to stop it. We don’t like to cope with new many things too fast, and the past two centuries have has given us more new things to deal with than all the previous centuries combined. It has been a mixed bag: steam power and internal combustion, electricity, flight, antibiotics and anesthetics, radio, film and television, and now computers. The latest thing always seems the most dramatic and dangerous because we understand it the least, and that’s where we are now with the “information revolution.” Older folks like me have had endless fun with the excesses of computer technology and its hypnotized consumers, even as we use the stuff ourselves. We have reached our level of incompetence but hate to admit it. Scientists can pick up signals from the Voyager space craft four billion miles away, but I can’t get my cell phone to work.

There’s a reason why the bestselling line of instruction books for computers is called X For Dummies. Most of us have no idea what goes on behind those cute icons on the screen. Their secrets are as secure from the casual user as those of the CIA or the Vatican Curia. A few adepts know the secrets, of course. The vanity of those who are computer literate is boundless, and to some extent justified. But because they are so few the whole web has begun to feel and operate like one of those ancient conspiracies – the Illuminati perhaps – who were believed to use their secret knowledge to control the world.

Yet the curious psychological power of this clinging web is that everyone feels him or herself at the center of it. We all feel like web masters, although in reality we are web servants. My computer (which is really not mine but a silent agent of the great web conspiracy) offers disturbing existential messages like “Out of Memory,” “Terminal Error,” and “Path not found,” confirming that we know nothing and have lost our way. This battle of the generations has been decisively won by those born after 1980.

Every generation deserves a slice of good luck. My own age group was born into a period of relative peace and prosperity, while those who immediately followed benefited from the sexual revolution and the abolition of child discipline. But the impact of what we might call the Silicon Valley generation looks like being more profound by far. Not only have they created an entirely new kind of elite, with incalculable fortunes based on technological knowledge and access to information, but they have literally changed the way the world works.

This makes the tech-savvy younger generation very annoying. Young people have been annoying from the very earliest times, when the first generation of homo sapiens grumbled that the second generation had no respect for its parents, couldn’t sharpen a stone ax properly, and had no idea how to cook a dinosaur, let alone how to wash up afterwards. More than two thousand years ago Plato, quoting Socrates, famously wrote: “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” Things were never what they used to be, and we are all deeply attached to the world and the culture we were born into. Every big change seems like an apocalypse, and the past will always be lost from one generation to the next.

But perhaps computers have shifted the normal generation gap to a new level. They have made thoughtless consumerism practically a duty, promoted political manipulation and disinformation on a scale the old Soviet leaders could only have dreamed of, created super-fast and out-of-control financial markets, and weapons that allow us to wage war by remote control. Their clever algorithms choose which movies we watch and which books we read. This is the first rumbling of a digital earthquake that will make most human skills and occupations redundant by the end of the century.

Multiple studies have found time online strongly correlated with loneliness. Social media may make it worse. Computer addiction is still a big issue, and the poisonous effects of violent video games are well documented. Computers haven’t abolished drudgery, and certainly not paper which multiplies insanely as we print everything for fear of losing it. However they have almost abolished the need for memory, as every trivial question is instantly checked out on a smart phone. We are in a conspiracy against ourselves, the essence of which is that we accept technology as fate and convenience as the next best thing to happiness.

None of these trends is brand new, but the computer revolution has put them into overdrive with no end in sight. The internet is the ultimate greedy institution, offering expensive and opaque ways to do simple things like keeping appointments, balancing a check book, or buying a real book. We are headed for a future where we will work online at home, receive our salaries electronically (and have them paid out again automatically to cover the connection charges), and spend what is left online. No actual living will be necessary.

The internet is also having a violent impact on literacy and learning, as any teacher will tell you. Even in university students are no longer expected to read whole books or articles: fragments are post on special websites for them, so it’s not even necessary to get out of bed and go to the library. In 2005 the University of Texas at Austin was reported to be getting rid of its books and installing “information centers.” There’s a huge difference between browsing a library and calling up data on a screen, which is unlikely to lead to anything new
But the internet is not an infinite realm, let alone a magical one as some users like to believe. A few years ago it was estimated that the whole worldwide web would fit on five thousand high-capacity disks which would fit into a closet. I can never quite forget that closet full of disks. It is all too finite and offers a claustrophobic kind of freedom, and even more limited by the fact that almost everything in it is geared to sales and commerce. Not to put too fine a point on it, the internet is one huge advertisement for itself.

In October 2014 a group of intellectuals and media pundits held a conference in New York with the title “Techno-Utopianism and the Fate of the Earth: Why Technology Will Not Save the World.” This was perhaps the first really high-profile effort to stop and push back the monster we have created. Unfortunately it was all just talk. My guess is that rolling back this particular chapter of “progress” will prove to be the most thoroughly lost of all lost causes.

Copyright: David Bouchier 2014