Talking bollocks about technology

Simon Jenkins has an article in the Guardian that is so wrong-headed that it’s a little hard to grapple with. The first couple of paras give a good idea of the flavour:

I rise each morning, shave with soap and razor, don clothes of cotton and wool, read a paper, drink a coffee heated by gas or electricity and go to work with the aid of petrol and an internal combustion engine. At a centrally heated office I type on a Qwerty keyboard; I might later visit a pub or theatre. Most people I know do likewise.

Not one of these activities has altered qualitatively over the past century, while in the previous hundred years they altered beyond recognition. We do not live in the age of technological revolution. We live in the age of technological stasis, but do not realise it. We watch the future and have stopped watching the present.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to pick apart all the ways in which his examples are tendentious, highly selective or downright false and skip quickly on to pick a bit out.

No, the computer is not a stunning technological advance, just an extension of electronic communication as known for over a century. No, the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before.

I can’t help feeling that he’s stretching the word ‘just’ beyond its reasonable limits.

As well as using it as a more sophisticated replacement for the mechanical typewriter, I regularly use my computer for design, photo-editing and as a print-shop. It’s a jukebox and photo display unit, and I can watch DVDs on it. I have a tuner plugged into it, so it acts as a TV, radio and video recorder as well. If I was so inclined, I could also use it to write and record music, edit sound and video, create animation, do 3D modelling, and process complicated mathematical functions. I can play games on it: an entirely new pastime and a new creative medium. I suppose you might argue that many of these things are possible without computers — I could have a print shop, darkroom, recording equipment and film editing suite in my house, after all — but I think that having all of them in one box qualifies the computer as a ‘stunning technological advance’.

And if I attach the computer to the internet, there’s a whole load of extra things it can do that I haven’t even mentioned yet. It becomes an alternative to mail, a news service, a library, an encyclopedia and a picture library. I can download music and video. If I had a camera attached to it it would be a videophone. There’s this site, which is read every day from places around the world. The numbers involved are fairly modest — I’m no Boing Boing — but even so, it would hardly be practical to distribute the same content though the post.

As for “the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before”; even if that were true, it’s like saying that aeroplanes are no different to ocean liners. They both move you from one place to another, after all. Sometimes, ‘faster’ is the whole point.

I’ve seen versions of this argument in the media a few times and I just find it baffling. Jenkins has thought about this enough to have a bee in his bonnet about it; how did come to the conclusion that this is “the age of technological stasis”? I suspect a lot of it comes down to the Clarkson effect: there seem to be lots of people who are fascinated by machinery and engineering as long as it has gears and pistons but completely turn off when faced with a piece of electronics. There’s a weird cultural disconnect between the nostalgic image of the ‘boffin’ — otherwordly but admirable model of technical ingenuity — and the ‘geek’ — pasty, socially inept, caffeine-fuelled toiler in the code mines. And somewhere along the line, people seem to have lost any sense of how incredibly sophisticated these machines are. The very sophistication of them means that most people use them with very little idea of how they work: you can’t open up a computer and find out how it works by taking it apart and putting it back together.

And that’s only going to get worse. I don’t aspire to übergeek status myself; in fact I’m hardly even an untergeek despite a few geekly leanings. But at least having grown up with the first generation of home computers, I have some sense of what a very simple computer is like and how you get from there to here. If your first computer has Vista on it, and you play your first games on an XBox 360, they might as well just be magic boxes for all the insight you’re going to get about how they work.

7 Comments

  1. 28 January 2007 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    He (or is it the scholar he’s writing about?) doesn’t understand the technology he uses every day, and is equally uninformed about the past.

    “Most attics and garages are stuffed with kit for which there was no sensible use, from exercise bicycles to fondue machines. Middle-class women probably do more manual labour than in the 19th century, assisted by such old technology as the washing machine and vacuum cleaner.”

    The daily physical labor involved in cooking with wood or coal, washing clothes, beating carpets, and scrubbing floors is quite different from 40 minutes on the exercise bike. This was all still going on at home when I was growing up in rural Iowa, so I’m in a position to appreciate the “modern conveniences.” The growing interest in “housekeeping” and “do-it-yourself” is in hobby activities–the creative side, with the hard or tedious parts contracted out to factory workers in other parts of the world.

    It’s a pity historians of science aren’t required to study a little science.

  2. Harry
    28 January 2007 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    He would probably defend that statement on two grounds: that most housekeeping technologies aren’t especially new, and that in the C19th most middle-class women would have had servants. It’s a little difficult to be certain, since reading the article there’s a strong sense of wandering goalposts, but that’s a guess.

    Or maybe he’s wrong every which way. That’s my theory.

  3. 30 January 2007 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    But obviously, Harry, he doesn’t work on a Mac. If he did, he too would be using his computer for all that you said. But if you’re not flexible and vaguely techno-savvy, and you’re not a computer person, and you still remember how to hold a pencil, then maybe there isn’t any difference.

    Twenty years ago I was publishing a little independent paper. I had to mock it up on a great big table using Exacto knives and rubber cement. I then had to schelp it across town to a publisher and then arrange to pick it up and then distribute it. It was a monthly paper. It took most of that month to set the damn thing up.

    Oh, no, there’s no difference between the internet and what I can do on a little eeny weeny screen and shoot to somebody at any time of the day or night.

  4. Harry
    30 January 2007 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Exactly – the man works in the newspaper industry; you’d think he’d have noticed that every aspect of the way the paper is produced, from composition to printing, has changed in the past 20 years. You don’t have to be a fan of the changes, or of technology generally, but it takes a special kind of sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting ‘la-la-la’ to pretend they aren’t significant.

  5. 31 January 2007 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    First to say thanks for the link to the Beagle Project, I’ll reciprocate when ‘do blogroll’ get to the top of the list. Read on and came to the great critique of Jenkins: I call the syndrome arts rot. The media is packed with arts and humanities grads who don’t understand science on a personal level and are intimidated by it professionally. Result: science stories rarely make it past the morning news conference except where they have direct bearing on the human condition or there’s a science-inspired disaster to report. Science is often rediced to crude stereotypes which are fixed in people’s minds very early. Arts, on the other other hand, just need a free ticket, opinion and verbal diarrhoea, so get acres of coverage. Loss of form for Mr Jenkins, but also consider the source: newspapers are losing sales and ad revenue to the internet.

  6. Harry
    31 January 2007 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    As an arts graduate myself, I’d like to think it doesn’t disqualify me from commenting on science and technology.

    I don’t think it’s just science anyway; in my experience if you ever read a news report on any subject you know, including those in the arts and humanities, you find it contains inaccuracies and misunderstandings. I guess it’s just the nature of the job: reporters and pundits are expected to be able turn out articles on just about any subject to a deadline.

    It’s certainly true that science journalism is particularly woeful. I don’t know what the solution is, although if more journalists at least tried to get the science right it would be a good start.

  7. 1 February 2007 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    ‘As an arts graduate myself, I’d like to think it doesn’t disqualify me from commenting on science and technology.’

    No slight intended on arts graduates, but the media is a case of too much of a good thing and scientists sometimes aren’t too good at simply communicating the complexities of what they do. As for inaccuracies, I’ve worked in journalism and agree on acccuracy: it comes with the territory.

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