Magazine article New Internationalist

Seduced by Technology. Computers Are Changing the World, and Not Always for the Better. Wayne Ellwood Measures the Human Costs of the Micro-Electronics Revolution

Magazine article New Internationalist

Seduced by Technology. Computers Are Changing the World, and Not Always for the Better. Wayne Ellwood Measures the Human Costs of the Micro-Electronics Revolution

Article excerpt

Seduced by technology

Computers are changing the world, and not always for the better. Wayne Ellwood measures the human costs of the micro - electronics revolution.

MY neighbour, Nick, is a soft - spoken, easy - going fellow who owns a big, ungainly hound named Duffy and has a passion for music. He's been a freelance musician all his adult life and plays the double bass for a living - an imposing, upright, stringed instrument that's virtually the same size as he is. But things have changed in the music business: it's not as easy to earn a living as a freelance musician today as it was a few years ago.

A lot of the well - paid 'session work' (making commercials and advertising jingles) has disappeared and been replaced by pre - programed, computerized synthesizers. Nick still plays in the 'pit' when he can - in splashy, touring musicals like Miss Saigon or Phantom of the Opera. But today he also works part - time in a music store, helping to ship out trumpets and French horns to school bands and re - stocking inventory when new shipments arrive.

Nick is not untypical these days. In fact his story is just one of millions that unveil the other side of the computer revolution - the human costs and consequences of the new 'wired world' which receive little attention from government bureaucrats or industry boosters.

Fantastic, science - fiction tinged claims about the benefits of the coming 'information age' are hard to escape. The press is full of hacks extolling the liberating virtues of electronic mail and tub - thumping about how the Internet will unite the masses in a sort of electronic, Jeffersonian democracy (at least those with a personal computer, modem and enough spare cash to pay the monthly hook - up fee).

If you snooze, you lose' is the underlying message. Jump on board now or be brushed aside as the new high - tech era reshapes the contours of modern life. This is not the first time that technology has been packaged as a panacea for social progress. I can still recall a youthful Ronald Reagan touting for General Electric on American television back in the 1950s: 'Progress is our most important product,' the future President intoned.

That ideology of progress is welded as firmly to computers in the 1990s as it was to the power - loom in the early nineteenth century, the automobile in the 1920s or nuclear power in the 1960s. Yet the introduction of all these technologies had disastrous side effects. The power - loom promised cheap clothing and a wealthier Britain but produced catastrophic social dislocation and job loss. The car promised independence and freedom and delivered expressways choked with traffic, suburbanization, air pollution and destructive wars fought over oil supplies. Nuclear power promised energy 'too cheap to meter' and produced Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

There is a lesson here that can and should be applied to all new technologies - and none more so than computers. One of the century's more astute analysts of communications technologies, Marshall McLuhan, said it best: 'We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.' In his cryptic way McLuhan was simply summing up what a small band of dogged critics have been saying for decades. Technology is not just hardware - whether it's a hammer, an axe or a desk - top PC with muscular RAM and a pentium chip. Limiting it in this way wrenches technology from its social roots. The conclusion? It's not 'things' that are the problem, it's people.

This has the simple attraction of common sense. Yet the more complex truth is that technologies carry the imprint of the cultures from which they issue. They arise out of a system, a social structure: 'They are grafted on to it,' argues Canadian scientist Ursula Franklin, 'and they may reinforce or destroy it, often in ways that are neither foreseen or foreseeable.'(f.1) What this means is that technology is never neutral. Even seemingly benign technologies can have earth - shaking, unintended, social consequences. …

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