Published on
23 January 2008

The Cult of the Immediate: Communications Technologies and their Impact on Society

By: Tim Golden


Tim Golden is a software developer, integrator and editor of Seminar on Wednesday 23 January 2008

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Flanders & Swann. When I was young, one of the few records we had at home was a ‘45’ with four Flanders & Swann songs, including Too Many Cookers. This was a tongue-in-cheek lament for the over-complication of the traditional British kitchen by the introduction of new-fangled gadgetry. As kids we loved this song, not so much because we had any kind of empathy with the sentiments it expressed, but because it included this wonderful ‘patter’ section which listed all the different – and mostly useless – gadgets which were the cause of the complaint.

‘With our new pneumatic icer / Self-actuating dicer / The ideal-for-cooking ricer / And the hardboiled duck-egg slicer’, all the way down to ‘The patent coffee-grinder / The cerrated bacon-rinder / The expungeable reminder / And the vermicelli winder.’ A cautionary coda to this list was the regret: ‘We’ve every sort of gadget / But it’s rather odd to think / We still can’t open sardine tins / And we still stop up the sink’.

I think this is somewhat useful as a metaphor, if you like, for the situation in which we find ourselves in 2008, at the beginning of the twenty-first century because we have piles and piles of new technology poured upon us every day. We can make use of things like digital cameras and recording devices. Innovation is the law, faster and faster it seems.

For as long as we have innovated – and we’ve been innovating as long as we’ve existed as a race – we’ve complained about the changes which innovation brings. This is, obviously, no less true today. The changes which technology has brought to our way of doing things are tremendous and pervading. Yet we must ask: Cui bono? Who benefits from new technology, and in what way?

Initially I wanted to opt for a longer title: ‘The Cult of the Individual, the Draw of the Immediate, the Quest for Novelty: The Impact of New Technology on Society’. (I had to avoid ‘the quest for the novel’ because it sounded as though I’d mislaid Pride & Prejudice). But long before I’d reached the subtitle it was becoming unwieldy and the TMI wanted to keep the invitation on one page. So I kept the title shorter, referring only to the ‘Cult of the Immediate’. I do want, though, to consider the different areas in which technology has affected us in the light of those three dimensions, the effect of technology on the way in which we treat ourselves and others.

I work as a software developer, an integrator (which basically means that I plug bits of software together) and I am not afraid of technology. (I am involved in the roll-out of advertisements on little screens on the Underground.) I have done, and do, lots of other things; I run websites. Technology is not something I or anybody else should be afraid of, but it is something about which we have to ask ourselves, ‘What am I doing with this?’ I think we have to avoid acritical acceptance of all forms of technology and ask ourselves what good we are doing with this.

In spite of the song I started with, I’m not really interested in domestic appliances nor in many of the other areas in which technology has taken such strides in the last few decades: biotechnology, car efficiency, limb replacement, and so on. These are all significant and obviously affect our daily lives in one way or another (well, if you have a replacement limb or drive a car, anyway). A couple of months ago, I gave a talk on this subject to a mini-conference in Vitoria in the north of Spain. The speakers were paired up and my co-presenter was Microsoft’s head of PR in Spain. In the course of her corporate-style presentation she employed the phrase, ‘The Digital Lifestyle’. Although this phrase does smell of marketing, I think everyone will understand what it’s referring to: the proliferation of (more or less) mobile devices to entertain and communicate. And that’s the kind of technology we’re going to be considering.

The fact is that in our everyday lives, if we have the money at least, we can have all sorts of digital appliances; some of them more embedded in our lives than others. While we have these appliances, there are definitely different reactions to them.

As I mentioned above, innovation always produces reaction. ‘Now what I can I do with that.’ But for the purpose of this discussion, we want to consider what kind of negatives might apply to technology as it begins its domination of our way of life. Obviously, there’s straightforward rejection, the Luddite stance: ‘This is the end of the world as we know it’. Slightly less radical is the reactionary, that of the Four Yorkshiremen: ‘Mobile Phone? Luxury! When I was a lad…’. But perhaps the most concise statement of most people’s position comes from the late Douglas Adams: ‘We are stuck with technology when all we want is stuff that works’.

What kinds of technology are we considering? I referred earlier to the rather marketese expression ‘Digital Lifestyle’. I suppose we’ve all got some idea of what that means: electronic devices, PDAs, Mobile Phones, Game Consoles, MP3 players, the ability to chat to people online, to use things like Skype to see and speak to our relatives abroad, to view films pretty much on-demand, to stop and start TV programmes when we want. The three challenges I highlighted as the complete title of this talk are all familiar to us in everyday life:

    1. Immediate– someone’s ringing me now, let me answer it; because that somehow is more important than something I am doing. I want to hear that track now, let’s download it. I can get it now, so let’s do it now. A slightly different twist: he’s not answering me, is something wrong? Because you expect immediacy. There is an expectation that the technology is available to everyone and so you expect an immediate response to your request.
    2. Individual – a mobile phone number identifies a person, not a place or an organisation. Even if you call a company, you expect to get Sid the builder and not some sort of receptionist. Mobile phones are very individual things; an MP3 player is intensely personal. Generally speaking, you have two little headphones and you plug them into yourself; a normal computer screen is a one-person size.
    3. Novel – I am not simply talking about the novelty of technology itself, but the novelty of looking for something new. Has someone sent me an email? Do I have any new texts? What games are coming out? What’s on the other channel?

Are the fears people have about this situation any different from those expressed when Television first arrived on the scene? When the first car appeared? When the telephone first rang? At a certain level: No. Fear of the unknown is no new thing; and valid concerns can always be expressed. What I am saying here will have been said before; I will be asking the same questions. Sometimes there are good reasons for these questions being asked, but there is also something universal about those sorts of questions.

But perhaps what’s different is the much greater penetration of this wave of technology, and its much greater flexibility. Within a stunningly short space of years, mobile phones have gone from being unusual items to being ubiquitous and ‘indispensable’, equipped with cameras, able to play television and viewed as fashion accessories. To change the channel on a television, at least you had to get up press a button or turn a dial or even possibly rewire a television if it was old enough. Later you had remote control and now it can be automatic. There is no question that some of these questions are perennial and worth asking, but there is a certain extra dimension to what we are seeing now.

At this point I’ll try to draw together the two aspects of this discussion: humane technology in the sense that the late Jef Raskin used it; an interface that is good for humans, and I am broadening the sense to technology that is good for humans and the effect of technology on our daily lives. I am going to talk a little bit about software here, even though most of what I will be talking about is hardware. I am talking about software because it is essentially what I am expert in but the same things can apply, mutatis mutandis, to hardware.

My own particular experience of this came ten years ago when I spent a year working alongside the Travel Information Centre staff at 55 Broadway, London Transport’s headquarters. The staff were a mixture of youngsters and old-timers but they were all highly knowledgeable about London’s transport systems. They had to be: the exam at the end of the probation period was highly demanding and if you failed after two attempts, that was it. The old-timers had a vast encyclopaedia of knowledge in their heads and they needed to reach for the reference books only to check for recent changes. The firm I worked for had implemented a whole new computerised travel information system, and I came in at the end to produce a public-facing version of it running on touch screen kiosks.

There were a couple of very clear flaws in the way that the design had gone through in respect of a lack of attention to the people concerned. Because these are people who are experts in their field; they are not drones, they are not call centre staff. These are people who know a lot about London’s transport. They did not need a system that simply supplanted them. The system worked adequately, but the designers clearly hadn’t considered the existing expertise and pride of the travel advisors. The computer system produced a set of solutions for each enquiry, ‘How do I get from A to B?’, but that left the advisors as mere computer operators, not ‘owning’ the route suggested and unable to suggest useful variations or alternative times. Another mistake was to implement a highly flexible and complex ‘Active Incident’ subsystem to cope with long- or short-term closures and diversions such as a water main burst on the Kingston highroad, etc. The problem was that the system was so flexible and complex, because there is a vast range of possibilities for what can go wrong and the net effect was that the system was so complex to use that they didn’t use it. Again, they failed to take into account the real need, and the team continued to use their wall-sized whiteboards as they always had done.

Technology has to be designed for people, and not for designers and not for its own sake. As a rule, hardware is better designed than software, not least because it is much harder and more expensive to change if something’s wrong. The sweet spot perhaps is the mobile phone for communications technology and the Nintendo Wii for the leisure market. The proof of the pudding is in the uptake! (For example, they have become popular with older people and girls who tend not to be the target groups for these leisure devices. I am not sure what research was done but they managed to think it through and say ‘what is going to work for people.’)

The point here is that good technology should be proportionate to the needs of its users and users must have awareness of the responsibility they have in terms of the fruits of that technology. Furthermore, any technology must represent a balance between the unfettered enthusiasm of the technophile and the fear of those who see their world changing outside their control or understanding. We are at a point of convergence, technologically speaking, where improvements in mobile and networking technology have met equivalent advances in digital media, allowing us to view and transmit pretty much anything we want anywhere we like. The challenge is how to make best use of all this for our good. At the end of every technological innovation is a human being. Technology is no use for its own sake; at the end of all this is a human being. We are not sending pictures around the internet for its own sake but because somebody wants to look at the pictures; somebody wants to hear the sound; somebody wants to see the films. It must be good for humans and we must make good use of it.

The subject matter of technology is vast. We’re going to focus on a few ‘hot-button’ topics – and even then only lightly. I hope there’ll be room for some discussion later. The areas we’re going to address are:

  • Technology in business, especially remote working;
  • Mobile phones and the etiquette and protocol surrounding them;
  • IT in education;
  • Youngsters & technology, in particular their social aspects;
  • Internet & computer addiction;
  • Privacy & security.

Financial investment by interested businesses is behind a lot of the push in mobile technology. The first mobile phones, expensive unwieldy beasts that they were, were paid for by companies looking to gain an edge by having their salesmen and managers available even while travelling. Nowadays it’s rare to find a business which doesn’t run on computers and mobile phones and devices capable of handling email, and even videoconferencing, from pretty much anywhere.

Certainly this has solved problems (such as being able to make decisions when the manager’s away or closing deals when relevant people are travelling). But it has brought new ones along with it, not the least of them the sheer body of expertise needed to keep all the technology going at its different levels. To quote Flanders & Swann from the song I started with ‘What we save in elbow grease / We spend on insulating tape!’.

The point of technology, as I was saying earlier, is to take away the mindless tasks to make life easier for the people using it but it does need that ‘insulating tape’, that technological know-how underneath it. On the question of employment, you are of course putting some people out of employment for the mindless tasks, but at the same time you are creating employment here for a different group of people who have to support all of this technology. Really it comes back to that saying, ‘Where did all that time and money go’, because you gained the time and money (by having someone available to talk to you on the train rather than them waiting to get back to the office). Sometimes it isn’t so clear that you have actually gained anything but then you haven’t necessarily lost anything either. There is a balancing act to make.

A well-known law in computing is Moore’s Law which – effectively – says that available computing resource will double every 18 months. But that’s up against Parkinson’s Law which – effectively – says that work will grow to fill the available space. Nor is the introduction of technology always so warmly welcomed. My company puts up posters on the Underground. In order to do that, we send out ‘poster fixers’ who now use barcode scanners. The unions are highly sensitive to anything which they feel might compromise their members’ privacy. Now it feels like you are tracking Joe Fixer on the underground and it is a bit of an invasion of his privacy. The point here is that there is a question to be raised. The fact that your salesman, your manager, your poster fixer has a Blackberry or has a mobile device or whatever means that to a certain extent he can be tracked, there is a certain amount of extra information and of course this can be misused. And they have a good point, as we’ll see later when we look at issues of privacy and security.

Let’s look at the ubiquitous mobile phone. It’s an often-quoted factoid – although I can’t find an authoritative source for it – that there are more mobile handsets registered in the UK than there are people. [Can I have a show of hands here: who doesn’t own a mobile phone? And who has more than one?] Apparently there are more handsets registered in the UK than people. It’s the poster child of attractive technology. Indispensable, universal, appealing to the young, to the old, men and women… And its sheer penetration in society highlights the issues of social responsibility it brings. Its benefits are manifest: the ability to contact pretty much anyone you want – emergency services, your wife, the friend you’re meeting – at once; the capability of texting when a phone call isn’t needed or possible; and on most phones much more besides: photographs, games, online enquiries and so on. And yet, it’s the cause of much grumbling. That sort of penetration gives the feeling that there is a greater sense of responsibility needed with it. As an analogy, think of the famous or infamous Harry Potter series. The thing with Harry Potter is that it is so pervasive and so big that anything in it can be considered ‘blown up’ a lot more than if it was some little book on the shelf. So in a sense, the mobile phone has so penetrated society that you have to look with a bit more seriousness at what the effects are.

There’s a curious tension here: an MIT report has the mobile phone as the most used and yet most hated gadget of the age. (The second is the alarm clock!) The thing most people will complain about is the intrusiveness of mobile phone conversations… and, given that you’re forced to listen to them, the emptiness of most of the content. Here, a team of researchers from York staged a series of conversations with and without mobile phones (i.e., the same set of conversations one-sided and two-sided) and then interviewed bystanders afterwards. They used decibelmeters to ensure that the noise levels were strictly equivalent in all cases. And, to no-one’s surprise, they discovered that people were far more irritated by the one-sided mobile phone version of the conversation. They could only speculate as to the reason for that. But as mobile phones are so pervasive, everybody complains but everybody probably does it because once you are on a mobile phone, somehow you are in your own bubble unless you are very conscious of this. You are talking to somebody and you are ignoring everyone else. That’s how phone-calls work but traditionally they work that way in a hallway whereas now they are working that way on the train or in the street.

The mobile is the ultimate toy, it offers immediacy, it’s individual and there’s always a new call or a new text or a new ringtone to download. But with the social expectation of mobile phones comes a whole new area of fear which wasn’t there before

I think the mobile phone is the ultimate point of conflict between convenience/use and social etiquette/norms. Everyone has one, and everyone is affected by its use and so this is an area where people need to be more conscious of what they are doing with this technology than they might be with something which matters less.  The mobile phone is, above all, the toy of the young, and indeed a teenager nowadays has never known a world without mobile phones. There are possible health risks associated with the mobile phone (and as someone who sports a Pacemaker I’m highly conscious of these) but just at the moment the jury’s out on exactly what is or isn’t likely to be caused by mobile phones and their infrastructure.

Speaking of young people brings us, naturally, to the highly-charged world of computer games with relation to socialisation. We’re not going to look at such things in general here: it’s a vast subject with many aspects. We are going to look at one aspect in particular, though: the social – or other – nature of computer games. For the unfamiliar, computer games come in three basic configurations: single-player, multi-player and internet-play. Any of these modes usually still revolves around one person sitting over one screen interacting with electronic characters. In the case of the multi-player mode, the other players are in the same room, usually on their own machines, networked to each other, but each player might as well be playing on his own; the only difference is that the other electronic characters are controlled by real people in the same room. Internet-play usually makes the human controllers of the other characters more present to each player, allowing online chat and so on.

At the club where I work, we don’t allow the boys to play computer games within club time unless we offer a specific game-playing activity, which we occasionally do: our rationale is that a club is a social enterprise, and games are almost relentlessly individual. If you are coming here, you are coming for a social reason and we want you to interact with the other people who are here.

One bright light in this area is the research done in the Viktoria Institute in Sweden where they took handheld – i.e., one-player – game consoles and adapted a version of Pacman (the one where the chomping ball eats dots and is chased by ghosts). The adaptation they made was to have the player’s Pacman move off its own screen and onto someone else’s. The first player then has to get physical sight of the other player’s screen, still controlling the Pacman’s actions from the first console. The result is a true multiplayer interpersonal game.

Since there are legal ramifications, the question of whether computer and internet addiction are true psychiatric conditions are hotly contested (at least in the U.S.). As things stand, computer addiction has been recognised as an ailment, while internet addiction hasn’t. Yet, short of true addiction, with its withdrawal symptoms and inability to forgo its pleasure, there still lies a fierce attraction which can affect people greatly.

Computer addiction (and its cousin, internet addiction) is a hot-button topic in the press, easy food for headlines on a quiet day. Experience shows that the difficulty in extricating oneself from an activity increases as more senses and more engagement is involved. So, pulling out of a book, no matter how enthralling is not too difficult for most of us. Coming away from a film, where sight and sound are both involved, is harder, even when the ‘Pause’ button is available. Detaching from the internet is harder still, and coming out of a game is much harder, not least because of the degree of commitment and the fact that you’re active, not merely passive within the environment. Put simply, you are using more senses. But there’s a difference between being engaged or even engrossed and being addicted

This will be of particular concern to parents and educators since teenagers, and teenage boys in particular, are notoriously lacking in self-control. And the internet is vast. There is actually relatively little consensus that I can find on the degree to which there is something truly psychological: addiction to screen-based activities as opposed to addiction to other computer based activities. It is not clear although I think that each person knows what he wants to do and can ask himself if he is too engaged in something over time.

I am now moving to IT and education, another one of these hot-button topics. I don’t know if you’ll have seen any episodes of the original series of Star Trek. One of the assumptions of that show, very characteristic of its era, was that some day computers would be a sort of panacea. There was an unknown alien lifeforce taking over the Enterprise and Mr. Spock would commune with the computer and come back with some sort of inference about how best to blast it to kingdom come.

The idea that a computer can solve any problem seems to have affected a common modern mentality when it comes to education. On the one hand, you have the ‘OLPC’ project, promising One Laptop Per Child in developing countries. Meanwhile, in our own islands, Plaid Cymru – in the frankly unlikely event that it ever makes it into power – has promised a free laptop for every 11-year-old. With this, you can either take it or leave it, but I think there is a big gap between that and the unspoken conclusion that somehow education will be the better for it. My co-presenter in the miniconference I attended in Spain had a video-clip showcasing Microsoft’s donation of Tablet PCs to a school in rural Spain. She was shrewd enough to point out that the success of such a scheme depended very much on the teacher. If you give a classroom of kids a tablet PC and then walk away, then what you are giving them is simply a games station.

There is a gulf of intuition, experience and knowledge between generations when it comes to technology. Something which young people have, which even people who are clued-in to technology don’t have, is the time and the carelessness to do what they like with it. There is a list of ten things a child would do online which an adult wouldn’t think of. There are assorted online facilities which adults will not go for but which children love. Kids love technology because it is so easy, and it is fun and it is novel and it is there.

One aspect of note, though not tied to education specifically, is so-called Cyber-bullying, online defamation. Someone I know is a housemaster at a London Comprehensive, and he’s had to call parents in to make them aware – as they usually are not – of what their children are saying online on facebook about other children. They were surprised firstly because they didn’t know what facebook was and secondly because their child had done this.

Of course, the biggest obstacle here is the huge gap between generations when it comes to IT acumen. I once read a Sherlock Holmes sequel where Holmes laments the fact that, in the early 20th century, he can no longer use his powers of observation to pin down a man’s job of work from the scars on his shoes or the stains on his hands. All he can tell is that the man presses a button. But he’s no idea what that button does. Well, just so are teachers when it comes to supervising youngsters – the most amorally grasping of individuals – in an IT context. They know they’re pressing buttons; they’ve no idea what the buttons are doing.

Privacy and security which is our last point here. We’ve seen recently a spate of reports about data discs going missing and, while loss of sensitive information is surely no new thing, the quantities involved certainly are. That efficiency in legitimate activity breeds efficiency in crime is a given of our computerised age. As a data analyst I can assure you that it’s now practicable to comb through data in quantities which would previously have been inconceivable. And, even for legitimate reasons, organisations are very keen to have information about each one of us available.

But once information is available for good purposes, it’s available for bad as well. What should change? Should we stop using credit cards (a major source of stolen data)? Well now you’re putting convenience up against security. If I pay by credit card, which is very convenient for me, there will be data flying around the system saying that I, Tim Golden, paid for some latest album by credit card on this day. There is lots of information in this for someone to make use of, and it is all there for the taking. With all that information out there, we need to be aware of that. What can we do? If thieves are going to get in anyway, do you lock your front door? You lock your door in any case in the hope that it will deter him a little bit. The answer should be for something like Public Key Cryptography to be usable across the entire software stack, transparently and easily. But that is a huge undertaking. It would need to be in place across the board; between me and my bank, Amazon, Virgin on Camden high street, and the pub.

In conclusion, then, we’ve covered a large number of topics and yet hardly scratched the surface. We haven’t looked at the Facebook phenomenon, nor at YouTubeSkype or Instant Messaging nor Blogging and its impact on the Everyman Publisher. Flanders & Swann echoed the plaint of the conservative: ‘Why did Science have to pitch in / On our nice old-fashioned kitchen?’. But, even if you don’t see technology as a force for good – and we have focused almost relentlessly on concerns about its effects – it’s undoubtedly here to stay. It affects each of us more or less closely, and it’s up to each of us to deal with that. At each step, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What good is this doing?’; ‘Do I have to make this call?’; ‘Am I too engrossed in this for my own good?’; ‘Does technology truly bring any benefits to this?’. In every case, the answer might be positive. Mobile phones are there to make calls. There’s nothing wrong with being engaged in something worthwhile or entertaining. Technology can truly bring benefits to all sorts of situations. But as network connections get faster, as display technology gets smarter, there will more and more ways to be distracted by the superficial. Technology is of itself neutral. It’s up to us what use we make of it.