By David Robinson
The driver of the 214 bus last night greeted us warmly, stepped off the bus to help a passenger who was partially sighted, roared with laughter when he played the recorded message that says “no standing up stairs” and then explained the joke (you had to be there, the 214 is a single decker), thanked us for travelling on his bus and, at the end of the route, wished us all a safe journey home. As we motley strangers traipsed round from Finsbury Square to Liverpool street station we talked about what a nice man he was and said good night to one another. The driver of the 214 had built a community in five bus stops.
Of course all this was very trivial and transitory, but I don’t suppose I am the only passenger who has wondered today how different life might be if all our routine interactions were infused with such humour and humanity.
As it happens I had been reading on the bus Gaby Hinsliff’s Guardian piece about the “Internet of Things”. Her sub-heading had tempted me in: “We are a generation struggling to look after elderly relatives. Maybe technology can ease the load?”
The internet of things is essentially the networking of everyday devices, already allowing the uber cool to start boiling the kettle before they get home and the fridge to order more milk when the bar code isn’t showing on its shelves. The same kind of technology might be used to send out a message if an elderly relative hasn’t followed their usual routine. Hinsliff imagines how useful this might be in a world where the “harassed care worker has 15 minutes to get you fed or bathed or dressed but not all three” and where “the state simply can’t guarantee to look after older people in any half-decent manner and nor in many cases can their children”.
Hinsliff isn’t wrong about the children, or the state or the harassed care worker but surely if we think smart white goods are the answer here then we haven’t understood the roots or the dimensions of the crisis. In recent years technology has swept into every corner of our lives. Every transaction is automated from paying the rent to fixing a doctors appointment. Social media has redefined our understanding of friendship. We have limitless virtual networks but fewer real friends. Those we do have are likely to be scattered and distant. We network but we don’t relate. Our organisations and our social systems are more efficient but less human. We are more atomised and automated, more comfortable with technology but more remote from one another. We spend 10 hours or more, every day, looking at a screen.
The internet and all that it has spawned are wonderful things transforming our lives in many positive ways but they are just that – things, not a replacement for human relationships. Our generation is allowing technological progress to become so disconnected from social progress that we are rapidly approaching the point where the damage it does will exceed the good that it serves.
We are not the first to reach this kind of disjunction. The industrial revolution is the obvious comparison. It wasn’t only about entirely new ways of working but also about entirely new ways of living. At first the essentially rural population struggled to adapt but in time our great great grandparents began to learn how to embrace and exploit the advantages of industrial progress and how to manage and redress the disadvantages. This, the second, social revolution, was no less seismic and significant in the evolution of our society than its industrial predecessor.
This is not a silly plea for the techies to slow down. It is a hurry up call for the second revolution. Every pound that is spent on the universities, the industries, the speculative punts that are driving the technology should be matched by another. These funds should be dedicated to reimagining the world in the light of our enhanced capacities and to directing the revolutionary forces in ways which don’t undermine our essential humanity but which value, sustain and develop it.
If we don’t, and if it is to be only the kettle that notices when I am dying at home on my own, I think I might prefer to be left to get on with it.