Picture a Victorian stately home. The Lord of the Manor is woken by his butler precisely sixty minutes before his train is due. The fires have been lit, the water for his bath heated, and the cook has already ensured toast will await him on his descent to the breakfast room.
A helpful clerk will ensure that during his time in his office he will receive regular alerts of any telegrams received informing him of any important events within his business or social circle, and maybe on occasion might suggest that he could have a stroll around the park, just to keep from overworking.
As he returns from a hard day’s work, the cook will have ensured a three course meal within an hour of his arrival, and the housemaid will have cleaned his laundry. Another maid will be on hand to wash the dishes as soon as he has finished, while he retires to the reading room to enjoy a glass of an exotic liqueur his butler sourced from a man who had only recently been in the Orient.
In another world, in another time, a man is woken by his digital radio-alarm clock in a centrally-heated house, quickly showers, pops a slice of bread in the toaster and munches it on the way to the station, has a FitBit reminding him to stand up every half-hour, and when he returns has an oven should he wish to cook, or a freezer full of ready meals heatable within a matter of minutes should he wish to flop in front of the TV, or a book. He may also indulge in a glass of that nice drink he remembered from a holiday in Japan and bought a bottle of from the internet while he checks his email and browses through Facebook.
Several servants have been employed, whether human or machine, but examine a bit more closely.
“A man is woken”
“FitBit reminding him to stand”
“Browses through Facebook”
And what if he had a motor vehicle in either world? In the first he would ask his driver to take him to his club, while in the latter, he’s not a million miles away from a driverless car doing the same.
So, this is all fantastic, right? We’re all lords of our estates, with a dozen servants helping us through our days.
In that world, we would have been interacting with people who were actually doing those jobs, whether that was the cook taking raw ingredients and producing food, the driver tinkering with the vehicle, the butler having an idea of what needs doing.
While I’m not going in for sentimental nostalgia or a glorification of menial labour, and I don’t deny for a moment that a lot of the peope in that society were, frankly, having a miserable time most of their lives, what we’re losing is a connection, both to each other and to the ability to create things ourselves.
If you open the bonnet of a modern car now, you’ll often find you can’t fiddle with anything. You aren’t allowed to wire up your own house any more.
My point, inasmuch as there is one, is this amount of service we get from our machines moves us further away from being able to do anything ourselves. It infantilises us. I guess this is the reason for the popularity of these Survivor, Castaway, etc. style of reality TV shows. They give us a taste, at a safe distance, of people getting back to something a good proportion of the world still knows.
When Fred Dibnah – a lover of steam engines – was getting old, he bemoaned the fact that with the passing of a few hundred enthusiasts, skills that had driven the industrial revolution would die forever, and these were skills which can’t be taught from a book, or a video – they’re skills which need apprenticeships to maintain.
It’s the joy of living museums, like the Black Country Living Museum, or Beamish, where people do keep some of these machines working, and some of these skills alive. It’s not that I’m so much of a doom-monger that I think we’ll actually need them again due to some impending apocalypse taking out all of our electrical technology – and if it did old technology wouldn’t be sufficient to maintain our current population anyway – but doesn’t it seem a shame when you realise that you can’t build things from nothing? If given a record – you know, the vinyl ones, played on gramophones – I reckon with a little time I could build something from wood, pins, string and paper which would be able to play it. Not well, you understand, and maybe not at the right tempo, but it’s conceivable. Now imagine trying to build a CD player. I doubt if there’s any one person in the world who truly understands every single component of a CD player.
It feels to me we’re losing a connection of a chain that we don’t need to lose. We’re striking out into a world where we’re detached from being able to retrace our technological steps. We may be better off, have all our fancy gadgets which tell us what to do, tell us what news we should consider important, tell us which route to take to work, even tell us what foods to eat to keep up with our latest fad diet, but are we losing something of what made us? The exact thing which made us social animals, taking time out of hunting and gathering to dance, since, enjoy each other’s company, and enjoy building, making tools, creating with our own hands?
We may be lords of all we survey, but are we also in danger of losing our knowledge of how we built what we have?
And if we lose that knowledge, is there a chance we will slowly drift into just accepting what we ourselves created, eventually being ruled by it?
Not by force, though.
By the convenience of it all.