Technophiles show Luddite streak

Prominent scientists ask: Is technology really good for us?

In a lively and heated debate at the 2020 Vision on Print conference in Berlin last week, speakers attempted to address the often tense relationship between human beings and technology.

The surprising conclusion reached by the majority of panellists was that technology is not always the panacea it is touted as and that the most important lesson for the future is to improve the balance between technology and human needs.

Author John Naisbitt believes we are currently failing to ask the right questions of technology. "Our relationship to technology as individuals and societies is one of the most unexamined relationships we have," he said. While he applauded government plans in the US to put a computer in every classroom he also pointed out that a poet in every classroom would be equally useful.

Naisbitt reserved special scorn for voice answering services which he described as one of the most inappropriate uses of technology he could think of. "Your call is important to us so please hold while we ignore it. Press one to listen to our 100 menu options and press two to hear how many customers have said they would never do business with us again after this call," he joked. Describing such automation as "voice answering hell" he called for the swift reintroduction of the friendly receptionist.

Naisbitt concluded that what was truly important was to remember that technology is merely a means to help express our humanity. "We must learn to balance the material benefits of technology with the spiritual demands of our nature," he said.

Acclaimed author and broadcaster James Bellini presented the strongest argument against technology and predicted a massive public backlash which would lead to what he described as the "digital reformation". He believes we are arrogant in assuming the electronic revolution is any more important than any other event in history. He is also concerned that it may be an excluding revolution. "The digital revolution is still under minority control and we have to ask if it is liberating or creating a high-tech feudal society," he said.

According to a survey undertaken by Family PC magazine 20 percent of Americans believe technology is making their lives more stressful, and means they spend less time with their families. The magazine's editor-in-chief, Robin Raskin, called for people to "get smart and learn when to unplug".

In a passionate speech scientist and techno-sceptic Clifford Stoll questioned whether the Internet was merely a status symbol. "I have never heard a beggar in the street saying 'Help, help, I need more information,'" he quipped. Stoll's entertaining onstage antics, including a habit of writing ideas on his hand led Bellini to comment: "The 'palm' has been reinvented this afternoon"

Amid the humour Stoll made some serious points. In his native California he said it is easier to get hold of a html coder than a plumber. "The plumbers are charging $125 an hour compared to $50 for a coder. In a society that encourages every idiot to become a programmer, neither our pipes nor our programs will hold water."

Stoll also questioned the wisdom of giving our children PCs and Internet access. "What are our children being taught by logging into the Internet? Do our kids really need more online bandwidth or more time with their parents?"

One lone voice in the debate claimed that technology was having a positive effect on human knowledge. Business consultant Manfred Lahnstein asked why everyone was being so pessimistic. "If we had been sitting here in 1980 we had only public sector telecommunications, no CDs, no PCs, no mobile phones, no Internet and no e-commerce," he said, pointing out that such developments had the potential to solve big problems in society and ensure our knowledge grows far more quickly than at any other point in history.

He dismissed fears about a digital divide. "There have always been have-nots," he said. "Haves and have-nots is today's debate. We won't be talking about it in ten years time."

The audience, however, seemed to share the majority of panellists ambivalence towards the benefits of technology. Asked whether they believed technology was neutral, 72 percent replied no.

Even the conference's biggest technology fan, BT's Peter Cochrane, cautioned against over-enthusiasm and over-reliance on technology. "As we wire the world we should take care not to short circuit the soul," he said.

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