Technology shapes and challenges all of us

I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also, new objects for anxiety. - Joseph Chamberlain, British statesman, 1898

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Some call it “disaster porn” when you read about the earthquakes, lahars, volcanoes, recessions, depressions, fires or floods coming our way – some day.

The reality is obvious – disaster, one way or another will hit us.

We are at a point where we could almost pick our flavor of nightmare; political (authoritarian take-over, socialist coup) economic (inflation, deflation, financial collapse) environmental (increasing storms and weather intensity and variability) geologic (the Pacific Northwest is long overdue for its “big” earthquake) chemical (entirely new classes of opioids and drugs vastly more powerful than fentanyl are hitting our streets and killing more than auto accidents or gun deaths combined) employment (are immigrants, robots or Amazon taking our jobs?) privacy (social media companies and “bots” know more about us than our mothers, and is any information – no matter how personal or “proprietary” ever safe?).

Nuclear war or terrorism are “unthinkable”, not because they are unlikely to happen, but because we literally do not have the brainpower available to think about them.

Diseases, once thought gone, like tetanus and measles have returned with a vengeance.

I could go on of course, but besides wanting to be able to sleep at night, my point here is not the immensity of potential catastrophes, but the importance of being prepared – not only to survive, but to potentially thrive in the face of difficult circumstances.

A flood of books and articles have been written on how to prepare for (or even profit from) the “coming catastrophe” – some alarmist, some practical and some philosophical.

The unrelenting reality is that everything around us is changing. From publicly accepted social behavior to the economy, to technology (intrusive, convenient or life-saving) to what we buy and how we pay for it (is a “cashless” store a great convenience or the ultimate manifestation of discrimination?).

There has been an alarming increase in the number of things you know nothing about.   - Ashleigh Brilliant

I’ve been hearing about driverless (also known as autonomous) cars for a few years now.

Many people are afraid of them, but my observation about them is very simple; autonomous cars don’t need to be 100% safe – they just need to be safer than human drivers.

Unfortunately, human drivers have set the bar of automobile safety astoundingly low – I’ve seen drivers eat, smoke, change clothes and text while at the wheel. Fatigue causes more accidents than alcohol.

Autonomous cars would eliminate all of those causes of accidents.

Knowing technology, though, a whole new category of accidents is possible.

Or not.

Many schools are getting rid of analog clocks because students don't know how to tell time. What other basic skills are young people not learning?  Photo: Morf Morford

Many schools are getting rid of analog clocks because students don’t know how to tell time. What other basic skills are young people not learning? Photo: Morf Morford

Many years ago I was doing some research on the technology changes of the early 1900s. This was the era of the introduction of residential electricity and indoor plumbing.

Both of which were controversial in their time.

Electricity was considered volatile and a major fire hazard. And maybe it was – but not compared to the constant use of candles and kerosene or gas lamps for lighting electricity was replacing. There’s a reason after all, that virtually every major city has a catastrophic fire in its history – from London to Chicago and San Francisco and Seattle, fire has been a constant threat – until the widespread use of electricity.

Oddly enough, opposition to indoor plumbing was even more extreme. Many people took what they already knew about bathrooms (as in “outhouses”) and applied it to indoor use.

“We all know about outhouses – how they stink and are thick with flies! Why would anyone want that in their house?”

Of course no one did – or would – or even would consider such a possibility. And few, if any of us, would want to go back to a primitive outhouse.

Perhaps in a few years, we will think the same way about autonomous cars. After all, it was not that long ago that elevators had “drivers”. The Smith Tower in Seattle had an elevator operator as late as June of 2018 -https://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/news/2018/06/27/smith-tower-elevator-operators-retire-automation.html.

The Space Needle still uses an elevator operator.

As late as 2017, over 50 buildings in New York City used elevator operators, primarily in apartment buildings on the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan, as well as a few buildings in Brooklyn (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/15/nyregion/manual-elevators-operators.html).

Technology changes at a pace far beyond the ability of some of us to adapt to it.

And some technologies, from typewriters to vinyl LPs, keep coming back.

And some, like the basic number 2 pencil, never change.

Things are sometimes better left as they are, but you can’t be sure until you change them. - Ashleigh Brilliant

Some stores are thinking about going “cashless.” More and more of us use (debit or credit) cards for our basic purchases. I must admit that I probably spend ten or fifteen dollars on a card for every dollar I spend in cash.

Millennials, those born in the 1980s and 1990s rarely use cash. Many of them don’t even use cards – they use their phones.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It’s probably both, but either way, it just is a reality.

I like cash, even though I rarely use it. Unlike using a card or electronic device, no bank or credit agency can track every purchase I make when I use cash.

Maybe a few years from now, there will be a cash “revival” similar to the “vinyl revival” we have seen in the past few years.

My life so far has been a long series of things I wasn’t ready for.  - Ashleigh Brilliant

My bias toward technology is very basic – any development should enhance, not diminish, our lives. Convenience (perhaps best represented by plastic water bottles and smart phones) has costs we may not comprehend for years if not decades.

GPS is useful, but how many of us have entirely lost our sense of direction? And how many of us have become completely lost precisely because of our dependence on GPS?

Have you seen the handwriting of virtually anyone under 30?

Cursive writing is another lost art – even the ability to read it.

Whether any given invention is an actual improvement or merely a furthering of our dependence on global corporations will perhaps never be settled.

Personal independence and the ability to be alone with one’s own thoughts are like lost ancient arts – maybe even the most essential “super-power” of our times.

Perhaps like every super-power, this one will emerge when we most need it.

The time for action is past! Now is the time for senseless bickering!  -  Ashleigh Brilliant