In the quiet, rather magical, days between Christmas and the New Year, the Guardian very kindly carried my thoughts about technology. It pointed out that news of the falling sales of tablets and ebooks rather confirmed the predictions of the French medievalist Jean Gimpel – who predicted the return of trams, bikes, natural fibres, real food and vinyl records.
And so it has proved.
For some reason, this article was shared and retweeted more than anything else I’ve ever written. And, if I’m honest, I know why.
It was because of what I said about technological change slowing down.
I won’t repeat my arguments here, except to say that I’ve been flying by Jumbo Jet and travelling in minis my entire life. I know the technology inside them is different, but compare that to the extraordinary development a century ago of submarines, cars, planes, moving pictures, washing machines and so on.
My submarine book – about the adventures of E14 in the Dardanelles a century ago – pointed out that my cousin Courtney Boyle could have commanded the first submarine in the navy yet lived to see the launch of the nuclear ballistic missile submarine Resolution in 1967 with a crew of 450: the full development of the technology.
It is true that I phrased it starkly to irritate the techno-fix pedlars. I certainly came in for criticism below the line, as always in the Guardian, from people who thought I was saying that technology hasn’t changed at all, which of course it has – just not as much as it did a century ago.
Now the business blog Flip Chart Fairy Tales has taken up the cause, and quoted me as backing for their scepticism about the heroic cheerleading of Silicon Valley.
But it always was more than that. By pouring scorn on claims that nothing will ever be the same again, I‘m also trying to remind people that social innovation is as urgent as technological innovation – and is barely noticed in comparison.
I’m not saying that mobile telephony is unimportant or irrelevant. I am saying that, when it comes to the key issues of the age – imaginative enterprise, looking after old people and educating young people – then measurement and communication breakthroughs are still not as important as human ones.
And if you don’t believe me, go ahead – and be looked after in your old age by a robot, managed by professionals who can’t see that here is any difference between virtual, robotic and human care.
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