Jane Wakefield: Fear and loathing of technology

Why won't technology work with us, not against us?

I would like to share something with you all. Something I have been wanting to get off my chest for a long time. I hate technology.

I hate my PC at home, I hate slightly less my PC at work (largely because a nice man from the IT department comes down and fixes it when it goes wrong) but I reserve my greatest hatred for laptops.

I would argue that you are as likely to connect to the Internet from a foreign hotel room via a laptop as you are to find yourself transported to the moon on a bed of green cheese. Which, at least saves you money -- one lucky chap on a recent press trip defied the odds and made contact with the WWW from his hotel room only to find himself lumbered with a £500 bill for his trouble -- hotels, unlike me, must love laptops.

As for other forms of technology, PDAs, digital music players, WAP phones -- forget it, I am clueless. The other day I had trouble turning my hoover on.

Until now I felt it wise to keep quiet about my inability to deal with technology. After all, I reasoned being a technophobic technology journalist is not something I should broadcast. Hence in my interview for the job I claimed that I loved technology, that computers were my best mates, that PDAs and I could often be found sharing a pint in the local pub. Now I realise that I no longer have to hide my technophobia, that I don't have to be embarrassed about not understanding my PC, that in fact I can come out of the closet about my fear and loathing of technology.

It would seem that I am not alone in regarding the PC that stands innocently in the corner of the room with a suspicious eye. In fact technology is making us all rather sad according to a study from the International Labour Organisation. In another survey -- conducted by Family PC -- 20 percent of people admitted technology was causing them stress and keeping them away from their families.

And to compound the new-found backlash against technology, at a conference about the future of technology in Berlin recently an interactive vote revealed that 70 percent of the audience didn't believe technology was neutral. This is a particularly revealing statistic, bringing technology up against the old wall of prejudice it always faces; the fear -- immortalised in sci-fi films for the last three decades -- that it threatens our very humanity. Technology's problem, in short, is its refusal to be human.

There can be no doubt that technology is quicker than us. It has Moore's Law which ensures it grows more powerful every year. We, on the other hand, are stuck with Darwin's law: we will develop and adapt, but very, very slowly. How long it took the giraffe to grow its neck doesn't bear thinking about (and leaves me wondering whether there are skeletons of giraffes with half a neck lying buried somewhere in the Arctic wastes).

While human beings are generally good at coping with change, technological change is happening far too fast for us to keep pace with. No sooner do we get a WAP phone put in our hands than it is whipped away to be replaced by a "new improved" GPRS phone. It won't be long before they start ramming 3G down our throats (and we will have to buy it if only out of sympathy for the huge sums mobile phone companies paid for the licences).

From the simple observation that technology is changing faster than us it is a fairly logical assumption to worry that one day it will overtake us. After all 2001 is only a year away -- Hal is just around the corner.

Science fiction will always use technology as the enemy, pitting human beings against robots and pointing us to a high-tech future where poetry and art are replaced by knobs. We are without doubt moving ever closer to a day when humans and technology merge.

People (currently only mad professors but others will follow) are getting chips implanted in their head, blurring even farther the boundaries between humans and machinery. Is a man with a chip in his brain as human as his unchipped mate? If the man with said chip goes out and commits murder would he or chip malfunction be blamed? The new world of the cyborg offers many challenges and is, I would suggest, one we are right to be scared of.

But we need to remember that in the real world currently our relationship with technology is more mundane. We use it as an excuse -- "I couldn't do that report, the computer crashed" and we use it as a crutch -- "Anyone know the Web site that does really cheap books delivered by tomorrow because it's my Mum's birthday?". The day is not yet here where our computers can throw back the abuse we hurl at them daily.

The imperfect relationship we share with technology is perfectly summed up in a sketch by comedian Eddie Izzard. Increasingly frustrated by his PC's inability to print out a simple document, he responds to a "Path to printer cannot be found" message on the screen by holding the monitor over the printer and shouting "look, there it is". The only day I will feel happy with technology is the day it responds to this frustration with a message of its own. "Oh yes, so it is. Silly me."

The important thing is to try and develop a future of artificial intelligence that is about teaching technology to understand and respond to our all too human flaws. Then, perhaps at last, technology and I can become friends.

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