Looking back on the festivities, do you perhaps feel Santa let you down? Maybe your son’s £90 Roboraptor is already lying abandoned, its state-of-the-art animatronics no match for the comforting, one-eyed gaze of his tattered old teddy. Does your daughter find her £150, radio-controlled X-UFO as much fun as that paper kite you picked up for her in the market?
And what about your own quad-band, polyphonic, game-savvy, video-capture, zoom-equipped camphone? Can you be bothered to find out what its cutting-edge features do, let alone actually use them?
You could be forgiven for concluding that the challenge of Christmas proved too much for 21st-century technology. Perhaps you wish you’d stuck with socks and scarves. However, your irritation may not stop there. Has a flattened TV screen or bagless vacuum cleaner actually enhanced your life? Do you really need sat-nav, a portable video player or a vibrating head massager?
Never before in the human story has so much frenetic innovation delivered so little of real worth. Hucksters ceaselessly imply that unless we update our kit, our lives will lose their lustre. Yet usually, rather than teleportation, eternal youth or silent popcorn, the most they can deliver is a slightly faster, slightly smaller or slightly fancier version of what we already have. Sometimes it is actually inferior.
You probably didn’t expect digital radio to sound worse than FM, though you may have noticed that MP3 is no match for CDs, which in turn sound less impressive than your dad’s black vinyl discs. And guess what, vinyl records are coming back into favour among the discriminating classes, along with bicycles, fountain pens, coal fires and candles.
We remain convinced that ours is an age of breakneck technological progress, yet most of the things we rely on, such as cars, planes and houses, have barely changed in their essentials since our grandparents’ day. Our enemies sidestep our high-tech weapons systems with backpack bombs, while medicine is still humbled by cancer and the common cold.
The advances of our era may be numerous, but few match up in scale to the triumphs of the past. We preen ourselves about the internet, but the most profound insights on which it depends occurred long ago and had already found expression in arguably far more important inventions such as the library and the telephone. Certainly, the web pales in comparison with the printing press, which in turn pales in comparison with writing. What discovery in our own lifetimes can match fire or language, the wheel or the boat, agriculture or the city?
Recently, a Pentagon physicist called Jonathan Huebner decided to try to plot the rate at which the level of innovation has been changing. He devised a mathematical formula to calculate the number of significant developments per head of population. By this measure, our current score is about the same as it would have been in 1600. It turns out that in modern times inventiveness peaked in 1873, and since then has been declining steadily. By 2024 it should be back to a level last experienced in the Dark Ages.
We need not be surprised. The low-hanging fruit of spectacular intuition was harvested long ago.
Sadly, the iron law of diminishing returns prevents any latter-day Leon-ardo from achieving half a dozen breakthroughs in unrelated fields in a single lifetime. Nowadays, a small step forward requires huge teams, which must first absorb an immense backlog of relevant data. By the time they have done this, many will be in the final stages of their careers, and this spawns a further problem.
Creative energy is firmly associated with youth. We are rightly impressed by the wizardry of the teenage geeks who devise the computer viruses that make our lives hell. Unfortunately, the structure of the research and development process today means that by the time such people are in a position to contribute something more useful, their genius may well have evaporated.
Where significant headway does get made, it is often in areas which have become so complex that further effort makes no economic sense. Thus, space exploration has more or less been abandoned. And there’s an even more awesome block to continued progress. Many of the discoveries that remain to be made may be just too complex for the human brain ever to absorb.
Still, you may ask, if faith in our technological prowess is misplaced, why should it matter? A disappointing Christmas present isn’t the end of the world. Unfortunately, rather more than that may be at stake. Over-reliance on technology could turn out to be the death of us.
The darker side of our endless search for cleverer stuff is becoming increasingly apparent. It’s our enthusiasm for air travel that may enable what might otherwise be localised diseases such as Aids, TB, Sars or bird flu to kill us in our millions. Reliance on genetically modified crops could result in mass starvation if things go wrong. The Heir fears that nanotechnology may reduce us all to grey goo. Apparently, a mistake by some over-eager physicist in some obscure laboratory might even set in motion a chain of events that could destroy all the matter in the universe.
These, however, are mere possibilities. Technophilia creates other perils that now seem inescapable. For one thing, it encourages us to cling to a way of life predicated on economic growth, which assumes continuing innovation on a scale that may fail to materialise. It also fosters the delusion that ingenuity can sort out all our problems, which in turn disinclines us to apply the more realistic remedies that may be what we actually require.
As it happens, our current civilisation is confronting a nexus of difficulties perhaps more daunting than anything faced by its predecessors, and our technological excesses have to bear at least some of the blame. Squandering the colossal bounty of fossilised carbon in a few generations may turn out to have been our main mistake, but it was our otherwise rather unimpressive machines that made this possible.
All the same, the White House is not alone in trusting to technology to come up with a fix for global warming. At some level, the same conviction underpins resistance everywhere else to the understandably unwelcome alternative – an adjustment of our appetites. The thinking seems to be that if we were clever enough to create such a mess, we must be clever enough to get ourselves out of it.
Finding a replacement for fossil fuels, should we manage to survive until they have run out, is also apparently to be left largely to our inventiveness. Many of us seem to be cheerily assuming that if nuclear power turns out to be too expensive or too dangerous, our limitless cunning will in due course tease some other genie from some other lamp. Unfortunately, the panto season has not much longer to run.
Meanwhile, as our nemesis creeps up on us, we are reduced to revisiting long-abandoned contrivances from less hubristic eras. The windmills flailing anew above our landscape should be seen as signalling the limits of our capabilities. We might as well look to Santa to safeguard our destiny as to our power over wind and waves. He may of course disappoint us, as perhaps he did this Christmas, but at least we realise that we’re not supposed to believe in him.