Tablet or Toi­let?

The myth­i­cal his­tory of the com­puter age

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - by James Boyce

ut­terly un­prece­dented through­out all of hu­man his­tory. Last week at the G20, I was proud to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia as the largest economies of the world con­sid­ered how to nav­i­gate the fu­ture un­der these con­di­tions of rapid and, in­deed, ac­cel­er­at­ing change … We must not for­get how rapid this change has been … Most of these big in­ter­net com­pa­nies – these gi­ants which are dom­i­nat­ing the global eco­nomic land­scape and in so many ways are re­defin­ing the way we do busi­ness, the way we in­ter­act, the way we con­nect – would, if they were hu­mans, still be at school, many of them, in fact, at pri­mary school. This is very, very rapid change.” Turn­bull’s con­clu­sion res­tated the core mes­sage of his prime min­is­ter­ship: the im­per­a­tive to in­no­vate, adapt and seize the ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties af­forded by a change “un­prece­dented in its pace and scale”. There is noth­ing un­usual about the chal­lenges of the present and the op­por­tu­ni­ties of the fu­ture be­ing con­structed on a per­spec­tive of the past. A view of his­tory in­vari­ably frames anal­y­sis of con­tem­po­rary prob­lems and cir­cum­scribes “re­al­is­tic” so­lu­tions. But is the view of the past told by Turn­bull and the wealthy young men who head up the big in­ter­net com­pa­nies (and, de­spite their cel­e­bra­tion of change, they are al­most en­tirely men) true? Al­though tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion has shaped cul­tures and civil­i­sa­tions through­out his­tory, there is no ques­tion that the pace of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion has been par­tic­u­larly marked dur­ing the past 500 years. Fran­cis Ba­con, the 17th-cen­tury philoso­pher and prophet of em­pir­i­cal sci­ence, recog­nised that three in­ven­tions – the nautical com­pass, print­ing and gun­pow­der – her­alded a new age that en­larged hu­man­ity’s con­trol over na­ture. From the late 18th cen­tury, sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and cap­i­tal­ism in­creas­ingly in­ter­twined, most no­tice­ably through the ap­pli­ca­tion of steam power dur­ing the aptly named in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion. It is not a new idea that tech­no­log­i­cal change sub­se­quently pro­ceeded at an ever-in­creas­ing pace. In 1910, Amer­i­can ur­ban de­signer Daniel Burn­ham ob­served that the pace of de­vel­op­ment had “im­mensely ac­cel­er­ated”, and nov­el­ists and fu­tur­ists be­gan to imag­ine utopias and dystopias in which tech­nol­ogy had pro­gressed be­yond the con­trol of any per­son. How­ever, a be­lief in ever-faster speed of change as the defin­ing fact, on which policies for the fu­ture must be based, has only be­come taken for granted in re­cent decades – after the sup­pos­edly un­prece­dented tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion associated with the com­puter age. The prime ex­am­ple of this “law of ac­cel­er­at­ing re­turns” is the ex­po­nen­tial growth in the amount of data able to be stored on a com­puter chip. Turn­bull’s flag­ship pol­icy, the Na­tional In­no­va­tion and Sci­ence Agenda, be­gins with a speedy chronicle of the com­puter: “The pace of change, su­per­charged by new and emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies, has never been so great, nor so dis­rup­tive. It is be­ing driven by rapid ad­vances in com­puter pro­cess­ing power and data stor­age ca­pac­ity, with an av­er­age smart­phone more pow­er­ful than the com­bined com­put­ing power of NASA in 1969.” There is no dis­pute that the ex­tra­or­di­nary de­vel­op­ment of com­puter ca­pac­ity, as well as the in­ter­net and its associated plat­forms, have been re­spon­si­ble for enor­mous so­cial and eco­nomic up­heaval. But how does tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion’s im­pact on hu­man life over the past 50 years com­pare with that of pre­ced­ing pe­ri­ods? Were the tech­no­log­i­cal changes since 1967 greater than those of the half-cen­turies after 1917 and 1867? Has the pace of change re­ally “never been so great, nor so dis­rup­tive”?

In the fourth vol­ume of The Ox­ford His­tory of Aus­tralia, Stu­art Macin­tyre tells the story of Western Aus­tralian La­bor Party ac­tivist Agnes Somerville, whose hus­band, Wil­liam, played a prom­i­nent role in union, le­gal, univer­sity and ac­tivist cir­cles in the early decades of the 20th cen­tury. Macin­tyre ob­serves that al­though Agnes was “more gre­gar­i­ous” than her part­ner, her pub­lic ac­tiv­i­ties were lim­ited “by ar­du­ous do­mes­tic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties: cook­ing for six on a wood stove, wash­ing clothes with cop­per and man­gle; [and] clean­ing with bucket and scrub­bing brush”. Her bi­ble might have been Ge­orge Bernard Shaw’s The In­tel­li­gent Woman’s Guide to So­cial­ism and Cap­i­tal­ism, but in­tel­lec­tual em­pow­er­ment could pro­vide no free­dom from the daily hard labour in­volved in run­ning a home. The lim­i­ta­tions faced by Somerville were shared by nearly all women other than a priv­i­leged elite with ser­vants. End­less work de­fined women’s daily life. Be­tween 1917 and 1967, home work was trans­formed by tech­no­log­i­cal ap­pli­ances that were built on the sup­ply of elec­tric­ity. After World War One, in the

Has the pace of change re­ally “never been so great, nor so dis­rup­tive”?

Ac­cess to clean wa­ter and de­cent san­i­ta­tion un­doubt­edly trans­formed hu­man ex­is­tence more pro­foundly than Google and Face­book.

new mid­dle-class sub­urbs ex­pand­ing in the ma­jor cities (them­selves fa­cil­i­tated by the elec­tric tram), wash­ing ma­chines, fridges, vac­uum clean­ers and elec­tric stoves slowly spread. In the 1950s, the new ap­pli­ances pro­lif­er­ated in work­ing-class neigh­bour­hoods and coun­try towns. The pro­vi­sion of elec­tric­ity to all classes and most dis­tricts was mir­rored by a host of other trans­for­ma­tive tech­nolo­gies. Aus­tralian homes re­ceived an end­less sup­ply of clean wa­ter de­liv­ered di­rect to the kitchen and bath­room, not just in cities but also in coun­try towns, as well as hot wa­ter and heat­ing on de­mand. Their oc­cu­pants started to eat pack­aged food, wear cloth­ing made of easy-care fab­rics, and ac­cess chem­i­cals that re­duced the long hours of labour in­volved in es­sen­tial house­hold chores. One seem­ingly ba­nal tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion high­lights the de­gree of change that oc­curred. In 1917, most Aus­tralian house­holds had no way of keep­ing food chilled. Some rich peo­ple in the cities had an ice chest (stocked by reg­u­lar de­liv­er­ies by horse and cart), but the com­mon cool­ing tech­nol­ogy was a prod­uct known (de­spite un­cer­tainty as to its ori­gins) as the Cool­gar­die safe. This sim­ple de­vice com­prised an up­right frame with sides of hes­sian, which stood on four legs. On top was a flat­tish tin of wa­ter, po­si­tioned so that wa­ter slowly per­co­lated down the walls to a drip tray on the floor. If a breeze was blow­ing, the damp hes­sian pro­duced a cool­ing ef­fect on the items stored in­side. The safe was usu­ally placed on the ve­ran­dah or un­der a shade tree, as houses were of­ten too hot for them to oth­er­wise have any ef­fect. In 1930, as many as three quar­ters of Aus­tralian homes had a Cool­gar­die safe, many of them home­made. Over the next 40 years, the re­frig­er­a­tor moved into nearly ev­ery home. Be­ing able to keep food cold al­lowed a revo­lu­tion in diet, shop­ping and labour. An al­most equally mo­men­tous change in daily life was the demise of wood-burn­ing iron stoves, and the sweat in­volved in keep­ing them work­ing. These de­vices (them­selves a sig­nif­i­cant tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion from the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury, be­fore which most homes re­lied on an open fire) were the source of hot wa­ter, cook­ing and heat (whether wel­come or not). Even the clothes iron re­lied on their power. Be­tween 1917 and 1967, a way of life built round kerosene lamps, can­dles, wash­ing tubs and wood was re­placed by an elec­tric­ity-driven ex­is­tence not rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from our own. The tech­nol­ogy-driven trans­for­ma­tion of home life was equally true of paid work. Stu­art Macin­tyre re­minds us that early in the 20th cen­tury “the great ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralians worked by hand … Whether it be lump­ing bags of wheat, cut­ting coal or tim­ber, lay­ing bricks or rail­way sleep­ers, a labour­ing job called for the ex­pen­di­ture of im­mense phys­i­cal ef­fort over a long work­ing day.” Of the 3843 fac­to­ries in Syd­ney in 1911, only around half used any form of power other than hu­man mus­cle, and the to­tal con­tri­bu­tion of all power plants in Syd­ney fac­to­ries was just 60,000 horse­power. Farm life was also fa­mously hard yakka. Very few farm­ers had ac­cess to a steam trac­tion en­gine. Many did not even have a horse. It was not un­til the 1950s that trac­tors be­came wide­spread on Aus­tralian farms. The ap­pli­ca­tion of labour-sav­ing ma­chin­ery even trans­formed the lives of chil­dren, who were also com­monly re­quired to work for hours be­fore and after their some­times long walk to school. What of peo­ple’s con­nec­tiv­ity dur­ing this pe­riod? Surely in this re­gard, the 50 years from 1917 saw only mi­nor changes com­pared with what would come with the mi­crochip? While the car had been de­vel­oped by 1917, it was still un­avail­able to or­di­nary peo­ple. By 1967 the large ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralian fam­i­lies had at least one vehicle. The trans­for­ma­tive im­pact of this ever-avail­able per­son­alised trans­port is too ob­vi­ous to re­count here. The de­vel­op­ment of the plane, which trans­formed from a nascent tech­nol­ogy un­suited for pas­sen­ger trans­port into the jet­lin­ers used by mil­lions of peo­ple ev­ery day, was nearly as sig­nif­i­cant. Then there was the ubiq­ui­tous spread of the phone. Al­though tele­phone ex­changes had ex­isted since the late 19th cen­tury, it was be­tween 1917 and 1967 that the tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped to the point that nearly ev­ery home across the coun­try was con­nected. This trans­formed not just so­cial life but work and busi­ness too. Nor should the power of cin­ema, ra­dio and TV be for­got­ten. Cin­e­mas, dom­i­nated by Amer­i­can pro­duc­tions, had a trans­for­ma­tive so­cial im­pact from the 1920s. In 1927 it was es­ti­mated that one in three Aus­tralians saw a movie a week. The in­flu­ence of ra­dio was even more dra­matic. In­for­ma­tion was chan­nelled straight into lounge rooms

for the first time in hu­man his­tory. By 1929, only six years after broad­cast­ing started in this coun­try, li­censed lis­ten­ers to­talled 300,000. The glory days of ra­dio were com­ple­mented from the late 1950s by the glory days of TV. These decades also saw the in­tro­duc­tion of an­tibi­otics and new vac­cines, and ad­vances in anaes­thet­ics, all of which trans­formed medicine. Per­haps, though, no tech­no­log­i­cal change be­tween 1917 and 1967 was as trans­for­ma­tive as the demise of the wa­ter car­rier and the night cart. The task that has prob­a­bly taken more time than any other since hu­mans aban­doned a hunter-gather life­style is the lug­ging of wa­ter. As Ge­of­frey Blainey ob­served in Black Ket­tle and Full Moon, it was a mo­men­tous mo­ment when wa­ter that had been “buck­eted from a hole in a creek, or de­liv­ered by horse and cart to the house at a high price” gave way “to the turn­ing of a tap”. Along with the pro­vi­sion of run­ning wa­ter came ef­fec­tive sew­er­age sys­tems. Many peo­ple still re­tain some com­mu­nal mem­ory of the im­por­tance of san­i­ta­tion. The night cart did not dis­ap­pear from Aus­tralian cities un­til well into the years after World War Two, and out­breaks of ty­phoid hung around nearly as long. A big im­pe­tus to de­vel­op­ing drains and sew­ers in the first decade of the 20th cen­tury was an ex­tended out­break of the bubonic plague across a num­ber of states. Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in Ade­laide, Syd­ney and Mel­bourne (a city well known in the late 19th cen­tury as Mar­vel­lous Smell­bourne) had con­nected most houses to wa­ter­borne sew­er­age be­fore 1917. How­ever, Ho­bart, Perth, Bris­bane and other ur­ban cen­tres re­mained de­pen­dent on the wa­ter tank, outhouse and night cart for far longer. Even in re­mote ar­eas seem­ingly less at risk be­cause of pris­tine creeks and rivers, wa­ter­borne dis­eases con­tin­ued to kill peo­ple un­til well into the 20th cen­tury. An el­derly ru­ral woman, re­cently in­ter­viewed for a so­cial his­tory pro­ject in south­ern Tas­ma­nia, said that the big­gest change dur­ing her life­time was the com­ing of the sep­tic toi­let. There is more ev­i­dence for her po­si­tion than the ri­val nar­ra­tive of­fered by celebrity pioneers of the IT in­dus­try. Ac­cess to clean wa­ter and de­cent san­i­ta­tion un­doubt­edly trans­formed hu­man ex­is­tence more pro­foundly than Google and Face­book.

I now work part time as a coun­sel­lor in a nurs­ing home. A priv­i­lege of my job is the op­por­tu­nity to hear the sto­ries of el­derly Tas­ma­ni­ans, many of them coun­try peo­ple. Some of the peo­ple I work with grew up with­out a car, elec­tric­ity, run­ning wa­ter, in­door toi­let or phone. Their child­hood was spent in neigh­bour­hoods de­fined by walk­ing. They did hours of phys­i­cal work each day and were pulled out of school for ex­tended pe­ri­ods to help with es­sen­tial jobs, such as pick­ing fruit. We don’t

use the term in Aus­tralia, but their fam­i­lies were peas­ants. They usu­ally had am­ple food (of­ten sup­ple­mented by hunt­ing) but lit­tle cash. They built their own homes, made their own clothes, gath­ered their own fuel and stored their own home-pro­duced food. The largely pre-in­dus­trial way of life only dis­ap­peared in Tas­ma­nia, and in many other coun­try dis­tricts of Aus­tralia, dur­ing the 1950s. It is true that a large gap had by then opened be­tween the city and coun­try, but the way of life in in­ner-city work­ing-class neigh­bour­hoods of Syd­ney and Mel­bourne in the 1930s was just as tech­no­log­i­cally dis­tant from the sub­ur­ban norm that pre­vailed nearly ev­ery­where by the late 1960s. Fur­ther­more, coun­try life was much more com­mon than it is now. Al­though Aus­tralia has al­ways had a highly ur­banised pop­u­la­tion by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, most peo­ple did not live in cap­i­tal cities in 1917. The trans­for­ma­tive im­pact of the tech­nol­ogy in­tro­duced be­tween 1917 and 1967 on the lives of ev­ery­day Aus­tralians com­pared with the changes of the com­puter age can be judged by the old tech­nolo­gies’ con­tin­ued in­dis­pens­abil­ity. If made to choose, would you keep your fridge or your tablet; your car or your com­puter; elec­tric­ity or wire­less con­nec­tion; hot wa­ter or fast broad­band; wash­ing ma­chine or Twit­ter feed; vac­ci­na­tion or Snapchat? Per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence sup­ports the his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence that what was most trans­for­ma­tive in how we have lived over the past cen­tury is not un­prece­dented con­nec­tiv­ity. A sim­i­lar ar­gu­ment can be made for the 50 years be­fore 1917. In 1867, the theme of Aus­tralian life was the “tyranny of dis­tance”. But the decades that fol­lowed saw the ar­rival of trains that slashed travel times from days to hours, ca­bles laid across the desert and ocean that con­nected the con­ti­nent to the world, steamships that dra­mat­i­cally cut in­ter­na­tional travel times, and an in­ter­na­tional postal ser­vice. By the late 19th cen­tury, there was not a ma­jor town in Aus­tralia with­out its own news­pa­per, and these pub­li­ca­tions were linked with the news-gath­er­ing ser­vices of the world. Events in Amer­ica and Europe were known in Aus­tralia within min­utes, thanks to the tele­graph. The sig­nif­i­cance of the im­proved com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury is now largely for­got­ten. But at the time, the lan­guage used to de­scribe the links be­ing forged was as ide­al­is­tic as that em­ployed by Mark Zucker­berg. When in May 1889 it be­came pos­si­ble to go by rail from Ade­laide to Bris­bane, Sir Henry Parkes toasted the oc­ca­sion: “In this great sys­tem of ma­te­rial ar­ter­ies which we com­plete to­day we see the crim­son fluid of kin­ship puls­ing through all the iron veins.” A writer in the Re­view of Re­views on 20 July 1896, cel­e­brat­ing the im­pact of bi­cy­cles, sounded even more con­tem­po­rary:

Silently and steadily it is ef­fect­ing in the so­cial world a revo­lu­tion … It over-runs fron­tiers, oblit­er­ates race an­tipathies, in­duces a spirit of ca­ma­raderie amongst for­eign­ers, breaks down so­cial bar­ri­ers … More­over it min­is­ters to our wants as well as our plea­sures … how com­pletely the wheel has en­tered into the life of the typ­i­cal Aus­tralian.

And changes were not just in com­mu­ni­ca­tions. The trans­for­ma­tive im­pact of the new chem­i­cal in­dus­tries that would lead to min­eral dyes, ar­ti­fi­cial fer­tilis­ers, high ex­plo­sives, ar­ti­fi­cial fi­bres and plas­tics de­serves at least a pass­ing men­tion. Nor were the changes in the cen­tury be­fore the com­puter age slow to be in­tro­duced. Edi­son only switched on his elec­tric bulb in 1879. The first aero­plane flew in 1903 and just 66 years later Neil Arm­strong walked on the Moon. It was but six years be­tween the dis­cov­ery of nu­clear fis­sion and the ex­plo­sion of the first atomic bomb.

There can be no dis­pute that the past 150 years have been re­mark­able, but there is no ev­i­dence that the changes in tech­nol­ogy in the past 50 years have been more rapid and trans­for­ma­tive than those of the cen­tury that pre­ceded it. De­spite the won­ders of mod­ern IT, most of the tech­nol­ogy that Aus­tralians in­ter­act with daily was around in a broadly sim­i­lar form in 1967. The fact that so much tech­nol­ogy has not changed is a point in­di­rectly made by those who high­light the dan­gers of in­er­tia for Planet Earth. The re­silience of the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine and per­son­alised mo­tor ve­hi­cles has proved re­mark­able; houses for or­di­nary peo­ple haven’t changed nearly as much as fu­tur­ists from the 1960s imag­ined, and planes and trains are not rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from their pre­de­ces­sors. In 1967, hu­mans had al­ready trav­elled to space and were nearly on the Moon. Our species al­ready had the

There is no ev­i­dence that the changes in tech­nol­ogy in the past 50 years have been more rapid and trans­for­ma­tive than those of the cen­tury that pre­ceded it.

ca­pac­ity, through the nu­clear bomb, to de­stroy the planet. Artists, writers, film­mak­ers and politi­cians knew they had lived through a pe­riod of trans­for­ma­tive tech­nol­ogy, and many were ready to imag­ine the revo­lu­tion to come. But not only did the vi­sion of the world in 2001: A Space Odyssey not even­tu­ate, there has been re­mark­ably lit­tle change in how we sim­ply get from home to work. De­spite all that can be done on a per­sonal de­vice, the trans­for­ma­tive power of tech­nol­ogy has largely failed to live up to 1960s ex­pec­ta­tions. It is in­ter­est­ing that the de­gree of global po­lit­i­cal change – it­self not un­in­flu­enced by tech­no­log­i­cal change – in the past 50 years was also dwarfed by the up­heavals of the pre­vi­ous 50 years: world wars, the Great De­pres­sion, the rise of Marx­ism, fas­cism, the end of em­pires, the Cold War. It might be that the next 50 years pro­vides be­lated ev­i­dence for the law of ac­cel­er­at­ing re­turns, but the past half-cen­tury does not. What­ever is to come, the his­tor­i­cal the­sis that the trans­for­ma­tive power of com­put­ers and the in­ter­net is ev­i­dence of an un­par­al­leled speed of change seems to be in­formed more by the pros­e­ly­tiser’s per­spec­tive of the present than their knowl­edge of the past. But does such his­tor­i­cal mis­judge­ment mat­ter? Does a wrong story about the his­tory of tech­nol­ogy im­pact on the con­clu­sions that are drawn about the present and the fu­ture? Broadly sim­i­lar his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives have been told by the pow­er­ful ben­e­fi­cia­ries of ev­ery dis­rup­tive tech­no­log­i­cal change. One doesn’t need to ques­tion the sin­cer­ity of the sto­ry­teller or to point out that their his­to­ries in­vari­ably jus­tify the ne­ces­sity to put away the old and em­brace the new. The com­mon theme is the om­nipo­tence and ul­ti­mate benef­i­cence of the tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion un­der­way. In the 19th cen­tury, there was an em­pha­sis on the prov­i­den­tial na­ture of progress. The hard­ship associated with lib­eral free en­ter­prise was ac­knowl­edged, but peo­ple were told that a greater good was be­ing served through their pain. Later in the same cen­tury, evo­lu­tion­ary prin­ci­ples were ap­plied to the trans­for­ma­tion of so­ci­eties. This provided a “sci­en­tific” ex­pla­na­tion of why the suf­fer­ing of some peo­ple was nec­es­sary if so­ci­eties were to evolve and flour­ish. Mod­ern ex­pla­na­tions of ev­er­faster tech­no­log­i­cal change, in­clud­ing “Moore’s law” (which orig­i­nally only re­lated to the ac­cel­er­at­ing com­plex­ity ev­i­dent in the evo­lu­tion of semi­con­duc­tor cir­cuits but is now more broadly ap­plied), still use prin­ci­ples de­rived from evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy. What ev­ery his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive had in com­mon (in­clud­ing the fa­mously crit­i­cal one de­vel­oped by Karl Marx) was a de­pic­tion of change as in­evitable. It was prob­a­bly no co­in­ci­dence that just as the Western world moved on from an om­nipo­tent God (or at least con­fined the con­cept of one to a nar­row re­li­gious box), grand de­ter­min­is­tic ac­counts of the past emerged in which forces were at work that over­whelmed hu­man agency. By the 1990s, de­ter­min­is­tic ex­pla­na­tions of his­tory had been dis­cred­ited in large part by solid em­pir­i­cal re­search. The labour of his­to­ri­ans re­vealed the past to be more ran­dom, in­con­sis­tent and un­pre­dictable than ide­o­logues on both the left and right had be­lieved. Power, profit and self-in­ter­est shaped events, but the out­come of the clash of in­ter­ests and ideas wasn’t as fore­see­able as had been be­lieved. His­tory was not pre­de­ter­mined. It was peo­ple, not eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal or tech­no­log­i­cal laws, who made the past. The his­tory cur­rently be­ing told by Mal­colm Turn­bull and Mark Zucker­berg is of con­cern not be­cause their the­sis is an in­no­va­tive al­ter­na­tive to this tra­di­tion of de­ter­min­ist sto­ry­telling, but be­cause it is the lat­est ex­am­ple of its re­silience. La­tent in the PM’s mes­sage to the na­tion to catch up with un­prece­dented tech­no­log­i­cal change and the Face­book founder’s mis­sion “to build a so­cial layer for ev­ery­thing” (and a com­mer­cial di­men­sion for ev­ery so­cial layer) is be­lief in the in­evitabil­ity of tech­no­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion – and the ur­gent ne­ces­sity to adapt be­hav­iour in line with this. Peo­ple who chal­lenge the par­a­digm are not fac­ing “re­al­ity”. Far from fa­cil­i­tat­ing dis­cus­sion about the po­ten­tials and pit­falls of tech­nol­ogy, and en­cour­ag­ing crit­i­cal think­ing about whose in­ter­est in­no­va­tion serves, the new his­tory shuts de­bate down. It re­moves pos­si­bil­i­ties for the fu­ture be­cause it sub­or­di­nates hu­man agency to the “law” of ever-faster tech­no­log­i­cal change. Peo­ple who re­sist are just grumpy old folk be­ing left be­hind by time it­self.

It is in Zucker­berg’s com­mer­cial in­ter­est for peo­ple to take it for granted that so­cial me­dia is im­mutable and prov­i­den­tial (even if such re­li­giously tinged lan­guage is now largely avoided). The more we be­lieve that Face­book is in­dis­pens­able to com­mu­nity en­gage­ment, the truer Zucker­berg’s as­pi­ra­tional ob­ser­va­tion that “it’s al­most a dis­ad­van­tage if you’re not on it now” be­comes. The Pol­ish in­tel­lec­tual Leszek Kołakowski has pointed out that de­bat­ing change in his­tory is al­most tau­to­log­i­cal, “for his­tory con­sists ex­clu­sively of pe­ri­ods of tran­si­tion”. But the an­swer to whether we are in a pe­riod of ac­cel­er­at­ing change can­not be known. I am no fu­tur­ist. It might be that tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion will ful­fil fren­zied ex­pec­ta­tions. How­ever, if the past is a guide, it is also likely that tech­nol­ogy will not live up to the hype. Face­book could go from two bil­lion users to five bil­lion, or be­come a play­thing of the old – more wide­spread in nurs­ing homes than in schools. The com­puter chip might con­tinue to de­velop or soon reach its phys­i­cal lim­its. Ro­bots may take over mil­lions of jobs or usher in cat­e­gories of en­tirely new ones; in­ter­na­tional treaties could pro­hibit them from un­der­tak­ing all but mun­dane tasks. The fur­ther re­fine­ment of in­ter­net plat­forms might help a more uni­fied world em­brace a shared demo­cratic fu­ture, or a resur­gence of na­tion­al­ism and pro­tec­tion­ism could see them be­come an­ti­quated tools of au­thor­i­tar­ian states. It is at least pos­si­ble that the fu­ture of now cel­e­brated tech­nol­ogy might look more like the once vaunted NBN (to which the na­tional re­sponse could now be sum­marised as “Is this it?”) and less like the trans­for­ma­tive won­der of the com­ing of elec­tric­ity. The les­son of his­tory is not that ever-faster tech­no­log­i­cal change is in­evitable. It is that the fu­ture can­not be pre­dicted. All that we can be cer­tain of is that so­ci­ety will con­tinue to be cre­ated by the choices made by flesh-and­blood hu­mans. To his credit, Zucker­berg once ad­mit­ted that the real story of Face­book is “ac­tu­ally pretty bor­ing, right? I mean, we just sat at our com­put­ers for six years and coded.” No doubt, the real story of Turn­bull’s In­no­va­tion Agenda is just as mun­dane. A bunch of bu­reau­crats got to work writ­ing the ac­count of the past, present and fu­ture that their boss wanted them to, right? Kołakowski con­cluded his re­flec­tion on his­tory by ask­ing the ques­tion “Where are we tran­si­tion­ing to?” and pointed out the sim­ple truth that “This we can­not know.” That said, it is both a com­fort and a chal­lenge to know that the fu­ture will not only be made by the rich men of Sil­i­con Val­ley. Main­tain­ing a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive on tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion also re­minds us that many of the big­gest tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenges have not changed in a hun­dred years. Nearly a bil­lion peo­ple still defe­cate in the open, more than two bil­lion don’t have ac­cess to im­proved san­i­ta­tion, and about five mil­lion peo­ple a year die as a re­sult. Fix­ing this out­rage through cheap and ac­ces­si­ble tech­nolo­gies will have a greater im­pact on the qual­ity of hu­man life than the in­no­va­tions associated with the iPhone 8. It is only ig­no­rance of his­tory that makes it ap­pear more trans­for­ma­tive to give the poor a tablet than a toi­let. Ever since tech­nol­ogy be­gan to trans­form hu­man ex­is­tence with un­par­al­leled speed about 200 years ago, crit­ics have warned that be­lief in the om­nipo­tence of ever-faster tech­no­log­i­cal change could cause peo­ple to lose con­trol of their lives and the abil­ity to think for them­selves. Amer­i­can es­say­ist and poet Ralph Waldo Emer­son wor­ried that “Things are in the sad­dle / And ride mankind.” TS Eliot asked, “Where is the wis­dom we have lost in knowl­edge? / Where is the knowl­edge we have lost in in­for­ma­tion?” Since the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion be­gan, it has been recog­nised that the dan­gers of tech­nol­ogy are am­pli­fied be­cause in­no­va­tion is al­ways in­ter­twined with com­mer­cial, po­lit­i­cal and na­tional in­ter­ests (no mat­ter how pure the mo­tive of the in­ven­tor). Re­cent rev­e­la­tions about the de­gree to which in­ter­net plat­forms ex­ploit per­sonal in­for­ma­tion for profit and power should not be a sur­prise. Com­put­ers and their off­spring are ul­ti­mately just the lat­est arte­facts em­ployed by hu­man be­ings in the un­fold­ing drama of life on earth. We should be sus­pi­cious of de­ter­min­ist sto­ries that con­fine us to the au­di­ence while rich boys show their tricks. A just, sus­tain­able and peace­ful fu­ture re­lies on or­di­nary folk as­sert­ing their right to share the stage.

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