The burden of digital technology

Robert Henderson

Technological  change  has been  making  increasingly  severe   demands  on  human beings for around 300 years. There  was change before then of course, but it was slow and most people   could live their lives without  having to adapt to radically   new ways of living.

Things  began to speed up as the Industrial Revolution began and an argument can be made that the century  1815 and 1914  saw  more radical technological  qualitative  change than any generation before or since. But  that  change  was the difference between living in  a  still  largely  pre-industrial society (in 1815) and  an  industrial     society  in its  early middle age (in 1914).  Moreover,  the  change  did  not actually require the vast  majority  of  the  population to master complicated machines at their work,  let  alone in their own homes.

In  1914 the most complicated machine most people had to operate was probably the telephone and vast swathes  of the population would not even have had to go that far into  the  world  of technology. Not only that, because  machines  then were either mechanical or part mechanical,  i.e.,  not   electronic, just looking at the way a machine was made  often allowed the intelligent  observer to have a fair guess at how  it  worked and to see  what had  gone  wrong  if it malfunctioned.  Even  work-related machines which required skilled operators, such as  machine  lathes,  were not   fundamentally difficult to understand, although the dexterity  required to operate them often took time to acquire.

Things remained essentially  the same until  the advent of personal computers and the widespread use of digital technology.  Machines became   more and more predominant in advanced societies but they were   not,   in  most  instances,  complicated  to  use. This  was  particularly  true  of those machines used in  private  life.  Telephones just required the user  to dial;  washing machines  had  a  start  button and nothing else; televisions  and radios  simply needed switching  on;  cars were simply  designed to travel. Then came digital technology.

Computers are like no other machine ever invented. They have  a  unique combination of  an unparalleled public and  private   use  and   a  central importance to  economic  activity and public  administration.   The  potential  penalties  for  the   failure  of these machines  are vastly greater than  for  any   other  piece  of  technology.   Not  only  can  an  immediate   application  of a computer be ended,  as can happen with  all  machines,  but  computer users also  risk  losing  networking  capacity  and, if they have not useable backed up copies  of   their computer data, the loss of their entire records and conceivably the loss of the means to continue their business. Computer users are also vulnerable to outside sabotage though hacking  and viruses.   No other machine has ever  exposed a society to such risks through its ubiquity and vulnerability to outside influences.

These machines are also vastly more demanding of time than   any  other  machine  ever  used  by  the   general   public. To  master computers to the  degree where a person does not lie helplessly in the hands of  experts  is a  demanding and continuing   task.   It is unlikely that many could or would manage it  without making  computers their  profession.   In fact,   even   supposed  computer  professionals   are   only   knowledgeable in   their  specialist  areas:   a   hardware  specialist has no deep knowledge of software and vice versa, while programmers long ago lost any detailed understanding of an entire program. It is also true that many self described IT experts are anything but. They get by with a small amount of IT knowledge  because of the general level of ignorance amongst the general public and the fact that most problems can be overcome by re-booting or by  reinstalling programs.

The computer age  is a stunningly  recent   phenomenon.  Most people even in the West   would  not  have   used  a  computer before 1985.  Probably a majority  had  not   done  so by 1990.  By the end of the 1980s  the nearest  most   would have got to a computer  would probably have been   bank  ATM  machines.  The internet was esoteric and laborious,  the   web barely more than a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.   Even    in  the  world  of  employment  computers  were  still   used   sparingly.

As  with  computers actually called computers,  so with the other machines which  cause much  grief now.   The mobile phone was  a status symbol  and   the size of a brick, while  landline phones were still phones   boringly   restricted   to   simply   phoning   rather   than    mini-computers with a tendency to bemuse.   Microwaves had  a  simple   choice  of power.  Refrigerators did  not  offer  to  remind  you  of  what needed to be ordered.  TVs   tended  to  simply work when switched on.

In  the past 25 years all this has dramatically changed.   We  are in  a world in which computers are absolutely integral   to  business and public administration and they are  now  the  norm rather than the exception in homes.  For most people, it  is  literally impossible to escape them.   Worse,  they  have  become ever more complex to use and invade ever  more  of our lives as microprocessors are inserted  into  the most unlikely things such as clothes.  Machines  generally   are more demanding. To use This has profound implications for  people  both in  high IQ and low IQ societies.

Even to use computers at a low level  of expertise, such as using a word processor to its  full capacity and  sending email  efficiently , requires  a degree of concentration and  knowledge with which  a substantial minority are uneasy.  More demanding activities such as  spreadsheet  use  or the construction of a database  are inaccessible to the majority. Most  people  have only a  minimal knowledge of the  capacities of their operating system . This lack of expertise  afflicts the young as well as the old, which suggests that this is going to be a permanent  problem because the young have grown up with computers.

Of  the commonly used programmes  search engines  are particularly interesting from the point of view of IQ. Everyone  who uses a computer can use a search engine at some level, but  the skill with which they use search engines varies massively.  This is unsurprising because the search engine is  the  commonly used program which most calls upon IQ related abilities.  It relies not simply on knowledge but  also  problem solving. To perform a function in a word processor  requires the user  to apply inert knowledge, go to this menu, use this function etc. To use a search engine efficiently for anything but a simple search for a certain website  requires the ability to formulate questions  in the most pertinent way.  I never ceased to be amazed how at many people  use search engines ineptly, often comically so. I should not be amazed of course because the ability to do so is IQ dependent.

The implications for those with a low IQ are these: the lower the IQ, the more the person will struggle in an advanced society because the use of computers is increasingly inescapable.  In a high IQ society the low IQ individual will struggle but the society  as a whole will  manage. In a low IQ society there will simply not be the IQ firepower to sustain a society based on digital technology.  In a high IQ society  the low IQ part of the population will be left increasingly in a technological no man’s land, unable to competently use the technology but forced to use it simply to live.

 

The constant learning process

Personal  computing  began in the mid  seventies. A  person  starting then would have had to learn the BASIC  programming language.   By the early eighties they would have been using DOS. By 1990s Windows   expertise  was  necessary.   Since  1990  successive   editions  of  Windows  have  varied  considerably  from   the  previous version requiring further learning.

What  goes for  operating systems applies also to most  other programs,   which   when  they  are   upgraded   often   bear    surprisingly little  resemblance to the  version  prior  to  them.  Certainly,  if one moves from an old   program   to  a version  which has been uprated twice, the chances are  that knowledge  of the original program will be of little use  in  understanding the new one.

Apart from the effort needed to constantly learn new programs  and to attend to such things as installations of software and hardware, the other great drawback of computers is the amount of time which can be spent on maintenance.  It is all too easy to find a  day  or  two  slip by just sorting out a single relatively  simple  computer problem or learning how to use a new program.

The nature of what is to be learned

The burden  of learning is   especially heavy because of  the  nature of that which is to be learned. This  is what might be termed   dead information.   There is no  intrinsic  interest in what is to be learned. It is merely a means to an end.  To operate  a program all that is needed is a knowledge of   the  menus  and  function keys.   That is precisely  the  type  of   information  which  is least palatable to  the  normal  human  mind.  Hence,  it is the least easy to learn for most people.    The  computer is in effect forcing human beings to  act  like  computers, something utterly alien to them.

Intelligence  is  of  little  use on its own.  Computers  are  information   driven  machines.  Put the most intelligent man in the world before a   computer  and  he  will  be utterly helpless  if  he  has  no  computer  experience.  Even  if the  man  has  some  computer   experience,  he will be as incapable of using  a completely   unfamiliar type of program as the dullard.

The substitution of function for intellect

That  computers are function rather than intelligence  driven  is  objectively  demonstrated  by the fact that all  of  what   might be called the administrative  operations of a  computer – file management,  loading of programs etc –  could be  done by a computer program.

When I watch the young using computers,  obvious or disguised in the shape of phones and the like,  I get a feeling of deep  unease.  They  so  obediently pull down  menus  and    select   options  that I wonder at the difference between them  and  a  robot.  The  machine is driving the human being at  least  as   much  as  the  human  being is  driving  the  machine;  brute  machine functionality is replacing intellect.

There  is  only so much any human being can  learn,  both  in terms  of time and mental impetus.  If increasing amounts  of  both are required by computers simply to operate them,  where  will that leave intellectual development?    Worse,  will the  ability  to  operate  machines become  to  be seem as the  most  important activity of  human beings?

The myth of youthful expertise

It  is true that those who have grown up with  computers  are   more  comfortable  with the machines than those who  came  to them in adult life – the latter still comprise, more than 50 per cent of the population. It is worth noting.   However,  the idea  that  the young  generally  have any  substantial understanding of  computers is dubious going on simply wrong. A recent survey  by the global market-research company Synovate, reported:

“We found that people tended to fit into one of three categories: 27 per cent are what we call ‘cybernauts’ – people who like to be ahead of the game in terms of technology. However, the majority, 53 per cent, are ‘average Joes’. They don’t love technology per se, but view it as a facilitator – it helps them to communicate or entertain themselves. They tend to use it in quite a functional way, such as emailing, banking or shopping online. Then there are 20 per cent who we describe as ‘digital dissidents’, meaning they actively dislike using technology and avoid it wherever possible.” Daily Telegraph 30 6 2007  The myth of the MySpace generation.

The  young know how to use the internet and web,  can work  a  word processor and  use programs which really interest  them.  But  let  their   computer develop  a  fault   which  renders Windows  unstable or unusable or  a piece of hardware  fails,  and  they are,  in most cases,  as helpless  the  generations which did not grow up with computers.

What  the young do have which  older people do not  have   is group  knowledge.  A schoolchild of today can call  on  the computer  knowledge of their peer group and the assistance of   teachers.  Those  a little older who are in work  still  have   their  peer  group  to  help them   if  they  get  stuck.  In  addition,  if they work for a large employer they can call on the  expertise  of the employer’s IT  department  or  service contractors.

Computers  have only been in schools since the mid  eighties.  Anyone over the age of forty (arguably,  over the age of  35)   will  not  have  a  peer group on  whom  they  can  call  for  assistance  with  computers  (and  other  machines)   because   almost  all  of  those  they  know  well  will  be  of  their approximate  age  – few people have  close  friendships  with  those who are  much younger than themselves – and the  people   who  are  their age will have little computer  experience  or knowledge.   The  best they can hope for is  assistance  from  their children if they have any,  and then it is pot luck  as   to how computer competent those children are and how  willing  they  are  to help the parent.   If an older  person  has  no  compliant computer literate children and  does not work for a   large employer,  he or she will  be utterly isolated from the   knowledge   needed   to  deal  with even   basic computer developments.

The  science  fiction writer Arthur C Clarke  pointed  out  a  good few years ago that there comes  a point with  technology  when it became indistinguishable from magic for all but the initiates. The dangers of that are obvious: for that which is not generally understood  gives the few who do understand a power over those who do not.  That potentially gives private corporations and governments a great stick with which to beat   their  customers  and citizens into  submission,  either  for  profit or political power.

Where the technology is as vital and central to a society  as  computers  have  become,   there  is  the  further  and  more   fundamental  risk   of society reaching a  state  where   the   technology  can  no longer be either properly  maintained  or  controlled.

More prosaically, in societies which have the capacity to embrace the ever  growing potential  digital technology, those without the means to gain Internet access or the ability to use computers generally will be left stranded as more and more of everyday life is dependent upon people having the ability and opportunity to use the Internet. Already there are few large organisations, private and public, which are not making strenuous efforts to force anyone who wishes to interact with them to do so through the Internet.   This trend will continue if nothing is done. There are also developments which within ten to twenty years may have driven advanced societies to do away with cash and trap everyone into a world in which  the means of living are dependent upon the reliability of digital systems and the honesty and goodwill of those who control them. Imagine a world in which payment could only be made through an electronic  transfer  using a card or  smartphone and the bank servicing your electronic broke down? Or suppose you lost your card or had it stolen. How would you survive?

In a democratic society politicians  should be addressing the very real dangers to everyone  and the unreasonable burdens being placed on those who simply cannot come to terms with the technology, the old, the disabled, the simply not very bright.  This is simply not happening.  God help us if those with power and influence do not begin to address the problem soon.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: