A Love-Hate Relationship with Technology

An article on the BBC News website caught my eye this morning.  The article suggests that within the next 20 years, car ownership will effectively be null.

A number of analysts suggest that the rise of electric cars, combined with services such as Uber and autonomous technology will mean that nobody ‘needs’ to own a car – these services will be not only cheaper, but more efficient too.

I can buy into that concept, in fact it almost excites me.  I love driving – at least when I have a ‘drivers car’.  Yet I concede that I don’t really ‘need’ a car anymore.  The allotment is within walking distance.  Plenty of shops can be found within a mile, and the weekly ‘big shop’ can be delivered.  In fact, there is little that can’t be delivered now. With services like Amazon Prime Now and Argos ‘Fast track’, they’re usually delivered to the door far quicker than had I gone out to buy them myself.

The only time I ‘need’ a car is for long journeys – visiting family, holidays and such like.  The car is sat outside, unused, 99% of the time.  With car tax, insurance and MOTs, it costs in excess of £100 a month just to have it sat there – before you factor in the cost of buying the car itself and the fuel to run it.

Driverless Taxis

The idea of having a driverless taxi available to you within minutes, whenever you want, has a certain amount of appeal to it.  No more fighting for a parking spot.  We could catch up on work, or read a book while sat in traffic.

Theoretically, if drivers were banned from cars altogether, and the roads filled with autonomous cars alone, we could abolish speed limits too.  Thanks to artificial intelligence, congestion would be a thing of the past, as would most – if not all – accidents.  We’d all get where we’re going faster, cheaper and with more comfort.  While clever people like Elon Musk are building things like the Hyperloop, there is little to stop us becoming a driverless society already.  The roads are already there, the technology exists and isn’t far off being perfected.

20 years suddenly seems very doable – if not probable.

A Renewable World

While such a change would take combustion engines off the road, we would of course be using far more electricity.  Fortunately, solar and wind power technology is also progressing at an impressive rate.  A large percentage of new homes today come with at least some form of solar power, and with increasing adoption it’s not inconceivable that all these driverless cars would be powered entirely by renewable energy.

The environmental benefits are clear, and that alone makes it an avenue we should be heading towards.

Developments such as this excite me, and I hope to be around long enough to see it come to fruition.  But the ‘tech revolution’ has also caused me much anguish.

I’m no stranger to technology – I wrote my first computer program on a Sinclair Spectrum back in the 1980’s.  When my friends were outside playing on their bikes, I was sat in front of a 14 inch television with the Spectrum hooked up and a blank cassette in place to ‘save’ my latest program.  The ‘world wide web’ hadn’t even been conceived yet, and only the geekiest of geeks had access to the internet.  My very first internet connection relied on using an Acoustic Coupler – though the cost of using it meant it was for mere minutes a week.

The world gets connected

Those were exciting times – knowing how to program a computer was seen as ‘different’, and not really all that cool.  Indeed, simply having a computer made you stand out from the crowd.  In the mid to late 1990’s, things really started to take off.  As costs came down and ISP’s such as freeserve meant connecting to the internet was so much cheaper (by previous standards anyway), more and more people got online.

Fast forward 20+ years and I fear we’ve perhaps gone too far.  Spend any time outdoors and a large percentage of people walk around with their heads firmly looking at a screen on their phone.  More and more school work is being done via ‘Apps’ that no longer need any parental involvement.  People don’t talk to each other anymore – they message one another instead.  School gardening clubs are being replaced with coding clubs, and so on.

Anti-social Media

People are becoming so ‘consumed’ by social media that their lives revolve around it – you can’t sit down to eat a meal without sharing a photo of it on Instagram first.  You can’t go anywhere without announcing your trip to complete strangers on Twitter. Heaven forbid you don’t update your networks for 12 hours, lest you be inundated with messages asking if you’re ok.  For the record, I don’t do any of those things – but I’m clearly in the minority these days.

The problem is – people are selective of what they share. They paint a picture of what they want the world to see, not necessarily how their world actually is.  The smiling selfies hide inner demons.  The beautifully decorated meals fail to show the previous dozen attempts that went in the bin.  Social media often shows impossibly perfect lives.

A Generation of Zombies

I would hope that most people of a certain age can see behind these masks.  But what about the future generations – the children in school today that only see the world from behind a screen, a selective world where everything is seemingly perfect.  They’re no longer outside exploring the world, playing on bikes and meeting up with friends at the bus stop – because all their friends are at home with a tablet or a phone.

This is of course a sweeping generalisation.  Some children are still playing on their bikes, visiting the parks and so on.  But for every child doing that, there’ll be 2 or 3 more sat behind a screen.

Our increasingly busy lives mean many parents encourage the use of technology.  Where once the children would be put in front of the TV for an hour while dinner was prepared, they’re now being given iPads for hours on end under the misguided belief that they’re ‘educational’.  Parents aren’t entirely to blame for this though – for some it’s the only way they find the time to get things done.  Schools continually pushing the use of ‘educational’ apps after hours don’t help either.

The effect on Mental Health

I’m convinced this shift is largely responsible for the increasing number of mental health issues – especially among the young.  Children with regular access to such apps are becoming ‘zombies’ – and they’re becoming increasingly reliant on it.  I’ve seen some of my daughters friends change from being wonderfully polite and engaging children, into rude terrors mere weeks after being introduced to iPads or tablets.

Just like their older adult parents, they see a skewed view of the world through such technology – they watch kids review the latest toys on YouTube and complain when they can’t instantly have the same toys on demand.  If it isn’t on a screen, it’s ‘boring’.

As a parent, I’ve made the same mistake myself – but fortunately I was quick to realise it.  We took away the iPad when getting our daughter to do anything else became a battle.  I made it clear to her teacher that I wouldn’t support the use of apps as ‘homework’ (and expressed my displeasure at them giving out certificates in school to the children that had reached a certain level in a ‘game’ ).

I made a conscious effort to engage the children in  other activities.  We’ve always read books in the home, and the children have more of them than our local library.  We make a point of ensuring the children see us reading – and in turn they’ve developed a love of books themselves.  Instead of playing with an iPad before bed, my daughter will read a book – something I’m incredibly proud of.

Back to Basics

I’ve actively engaged my daughter in our allotment.  I ask her what we should plant, she helps sow seeds and generally helps out around the plot.  For the most part, she loves every minute she’s there – and she’s keen to learn too.  It’s no longer sufficient to explain what a flower is called, she wants to know the botanical name too.  She doesn’t feel like she’s missing out on anything by not having the iPad anymore – indeed, she even seems to understand the reason why – “it makes me be a nuisance’, she explains.  Wise words for a six-year-old indeed.

Technology has it’s place, and can be exciting. It’s important however need to ensure a balance – we can’t afford to lose sight of our ability to connect with the real world.  Or in 20 years time, nobody will know how to grow the food we need to survive.

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