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30 April 2009

Don’t sell me your dream

Far from liberating us, technology isolates us and makes us stupid. I want no part of your sterile,

By Tom Hodgkinson

Ever since Hobbes, man has been using his ingenuity and energy in an attempt to ­create a technological utopia. Perpetually dissatisfied with the present, we have invented spinning jennies, steam power, canals, railways, motor cars, flying machines, the wireless, tele­vision, computers, mobile telephones. We have been taught in schools since the late 18th century, and by the culture at large, to revere technology and to place faith in it as a liberator. Soon, soon, it seems to say, soon you will be free.

I have a different view. I hold in supreme contempt 90 per cent of modern technology. The whole sorry shebang is actually a costly distraction, which isolates us, makes us stupid and is never going to free us.

Take that digital manacle, the BlackBerry. My first objection to this bleeping distraction is its name. To me, the blackberry is the fruit of the bramble, best picked in September and made into a crumble. It is not a portable telephone and emailing device. It is a strange fact, by the way, that new technology loves to appropriate words from nature. Orange, Apple, Twitter, Amazon, Safari and O2: all companies or products that in fact separate us from messy nature.

But back to the infernal BlackBerry. You are with a friend and you notice that her attention starts wandering. She is writing an email! Surely that is just plain rude. It is also a clever way for your employer to be able to call on you at all times.

Far from making good on its promise to release information to the people, technology makes us into stupid slaves with the concentration span of a two-year-old. No longer can we read drama or poetry; information has to be condensed into bite-sized PowerPoint chunks. Instead of bicycling to the library and getting down three books to help us in our research, we remain in our chairs and lazily consult that dubious, low-quality oracle, Wikipedia, which ensures that not only does the whole world get the same answer, but also that it is a very poor one.

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It is also important to remember that technology is not altruistic. Facebook and MySpace are ad sales scams. They get free content and demographic data from their members, then sell it to advertisers. And technology is not neutral: it is one manifestation of a certain sort of techno-utopian world-view, which Aldous Huxley, writing The Perennial Philosophy (1946), described as follows:

“Salvation is regarded as a deliverance . . . out of the miseries and evils associated with bad material conditions into another set of future material conditions so much better than the present that . . . they will cause everybody to be perfectly happy, wise, virtuous. It is drummed into the popular mind, not by the representatives of state or church, but by those most influential of popular moralists and philosophers, the writers of advertising copy.”

Technology, like most capitalist constructs, advertising included, appeals to our self-importance (“because you’re worth it”). The mobile phone makes you feel like someone. Witness also the “i” that has been so successful for Apple. In a world where many of us have little control over our work lives, technology makes us feel important. And the BlackBerry promises to make us even more busy and important. A recent advertising campaign showed an unsmiling Teutonic supermodel under the legend “Superhuman”. The ad implied that the purchase of a BlackBerry would transform a mere mortal into something altogether superior. It’s the same with the dreadful Twitter. No longer are you a corporate slave in your cubicle: now you are a coffee-house wit. When I interviewed the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland in 1994, he was already complaining about how the internet was helping all those “wannabe Oscar Wildes just waiting to spew their bons mots into the ether”.

Technology is in the business of selling dreams. And the most influential peddlers of these dreams are the Californian futurologists who, rather in the same manner as naive utopians such as H G Wells before them, are still hoping for jetpacks, eternal life and libertarian communes on ships floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The brilliant investor and hedge-fund manager Peter Thiel is one such character. He was he first backer of Facebook and before that co-founded PayPal, but also believes in a piece of Californian mumbo-jumbo called “The Singularity”. This is the idea that soon computers will become cleverer than humans. He is also a fan of life-extension research, and gives money to an English scientist called Aubrey de Grey, who believes that technology will help us to live to be a thousand years old.

The great myth is that some time soon there will be a technological breakthrough that will lead us to the promised land. But, of course, this will never happen, as Huxley pointed out:

“Because technology advances, we fancy that we are making corresponding progress all along the line; because we have considerable power over inanimate nature, we are convinced that we are the self-sufficient masters of our souls; and because cleverness has given us technology and power, we believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that we have only to go on being yet cleverer in a yet more systematic way to achieve social order, international peace and personal happiness.”

Brave New World (1932), Huxley’s eerily prophetic novel, was conceived as a riposte to H G Wells’s faith in technology. Huxley’s intention was to warn where we might be heading if we continued to chase the technodream. In Brave New World there are no books: Shakespeare and Keats are banned because they disturb people. “Everyone’s happy now,” boasts the Controller, Mustapha Mond. Instead of art and truth and beauty, the brave new world gives its people comfort and happiness. They have as much sex as they like, and when life gets difficult they take the tranquillising drug soma. This is a result of man becoming too clever for his own good: a sterile, antiseptic, bloodless paradise.

But we are already part of the way there. Instead of buying books, schools buy computers, forgetting that most households have a computer but not many books. The computers will also go out of date very quickly, creating piles of landfill. Nothing dates so fast as technology.

On a severely practical level, technology is hugely frustrating. It doesn’t work very well. It breaks. It suddenly starts going slow. The gap ­between the elevated promise of the gadget and the messy reality can lead to bursts of techno-rage. But not working is good for business: when existing technology lets you down, just upgrade.

It’s a strange fact that the more you cast this stuff off, the freer you feel. It is a treat to be without a mobile phone or computer or television. Try it for a day – you suddenly realise how much in thrall to this stuff you have been, a slave to the things that promise to free you, but never do.