After Hours

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Is technology really so bad for us?

That bygone, pre-tech golden era when "life was better" never existed

Written at my home on a cold grey winter's day with the snow gradually being washed away by rain, and dispatched to silicon.com later the same day via an aggregated broadband service.

I was recently party to a debate on how technology is making people do unnatural things and changing society for the worse. You know the kind of stuff: too much screen time, wasting time on games, short attention spans, emailing instead of writing letters etc.

While I chose not to make any contribution to the conversation at the time, it did trigger a different line of thought that I would now like to share with you.

Broadly speaking, all the complaints and negativity were along the lines of 'technology is harming people and society': email, blogging, Twitter, social networking, eBay, Google and online everything are all bad for one reason or another.

So you might guess this was an event within the shores of the EU! Technophobia is rife on this continent and I often consider that people think too much instead of just getting on with it.

The key question to address is: just what constitutes natural human behaviour?

A few thousand years ago humans hunted and scavenged like dogs and suffered short and brutish lives. Only a few generations ago food was precious and often scarce with people farming and harvesting animals and crops. Few could read and write and infant mortality was high.

Then of course populations migrated into towns and cities to work in mills and industries that wrought a different set of privations and risks. But it led to education and healthcare for all, the availability of clothing and goods that the majority could afford, and longer, far more productive lives.

Today that industrial revolution is a distant memory and the world of IT has taken over. And many would say that life for those in the first world has never been better. So just when was this mythical golden time of natural human behaviour that people are harkening back to?

I would contend there has never been such a time! It is like suggesting the British countryside is natural and should always be preserved. The reality is that it was manmade! Roads, lanes, walls, hedgerows, farms, tree planting, meadows, crop planting, canals, irrigation ditches and the rerouting of rivers, streams and water courses are all manifestations of human intervention. Since we arrived on this planet nothing has been natural.

The same is true of our behaviour - we adapt to the environment at the time, and best of all, we always go with the least energy options and solutions. Playing computer games is no more unnatural than reading a book - both educate and inform, just via different mechanisms.

The reality is that the electronic world empowers us - it allows us to do and achieve more than any generation before us. My 'e-glass' is definitely half full and not half empty. The detractors should remember that evolution always favours the adaptable.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox