by Magnus Shaw: When the dreadful story of the mysterious disappearance of Flight MH370 dawned on the world, it was notable how many people pontificated ‘Surely all those satellites and things can track a plane anywhere.’ Some hotheads even went as far as to suggest this was a conspiratorial red-flag. Those with power knew where the plane was, they just weren’t telling us.
There could be no clearer indication that technology is the defining force of the early 21st century, than the public’s inclination to frame the tragedy in those terms. They were, of course, wrong. Quite obviously a plane can vanish because it did.
The psychology of our relationship with the gadgets and systems shaping our lives is a fascinating thing to observe. It’s also a difficult thing to observe, for (at least in the developed world) we are inescapably part of that grand experiment. I am writing this on a laptop computer. When it’s finished it will be added to a database which will display it on a website. I’m wired in, as part of the process. I’m one of the thousands of ghosts in the machine.
However, I’d like to think I have just about enough objectivity to examine the nature of my own perception of technology, and that of my fellow human beings.
In just the way readers and viewers adamantly insisted the Malaysian jet must be detectable, our picture of technology is always slightly removed from reality. How often do we hear that every movie and every song is available to every person at the click of the button? But that isn’t true. We can stream a large amount of content for a modest charge, or we can choose to share various files, illegally and for free. But no streaming service carries everything (try listening to The Beatles or AC/DC on Spotify) and file sharing can be very fiddly and long-winded.
Equally, we’re told – and readily believe and repeat – that smart phones give us almost unlimited access to information and media, wherever we go. Not quite. Most 3G networks come unstuck on trains and in remote locations. Data load in central London has a tendency to slow connectivity to a snail’s pace.
Technological advances since the turn of the millennium have been extraordinary. The BBC is now able to plan an online-only future for a whole channel. Footage can be shot and distributed globally with astonishing speed and effectiveness. Nevertheless, these systems are undeniably patchy and regularly fail. Look at Skype. A tremendous innovation, but witness the frequency of dropped connections on professional broadcast services; or Skype your family abroad and wade through the intermittent picture quality and wooshing sounds. This will improve – and yet, we tend to think we have the utmost in video telephony at our fingertips. We’re literally, getting ahead of ourselves.
My generation has become an unofficial IT helpdesk to our parents. This isn’t a complaint (at least, not against parents). I’m delighted my mother uses the web and a Kindle – I’m just disappointed she can’t set up, troubleshoot and adjust the devices she owns with ease. She’s not daft, and the machines aren’t rubbish. Unfortunately the designers, manufacturers and service providers are failing her and simultaneously failing their own technology.
The functionality of Skype, Twitter, facebook, Google, YouTube and so on, is astonishing. Some services are stunningly brave and hugely impressive. But the infrastructure and our ability to exploit these services properly is muddled and flawed. Can you imagine the benefits to the economy, employment, emergency services and national cohesion, if we enjoyed a government-backed, high-speed, wireless broadband network? Not necessarily free, but strong, reliable and ubiquitous. Not a single major political party is proposing this. Why? Because their willingness to understand, let alone deploy, digital technology is woefully inadequate. From ministers asking for social media to be turned off in districts experiencing civil unrest, to adult content opt-ins – let alone the eye-watering sums written off in hopelessly mismanaged IT projects – our ‘lords and masters’ are hobbled by their ignorance and confusion.
Looking to corporations to realise the vision we have of our digital world, would also be misguided. The ‘Windows’ operating system underpins the vast majority of the planet’s technological endeavours. It is also widely regarded as a cumbersome, badly plotted and inadequate enterprise. Thanks to Microsoft’s near monopoly, there’s little impetus to improve. Indeed, each new release brings a fresh flurry of complaint and dismay. The potential for a smooth, dynamic system is there; complacency and clumsiness holds it back.
Of course, it is often mooted that Apple are the exemplars of technology perfected. Well, are they? It’s certainly hard to imagine a more efficient, intelligent mobile device than the iPhone. Then again, I have recently been using a Mac laptop for some work in which I’m involved, and it’s a pretty unsatisfying machine; as fiddly and unintuitive as a PC, just in different ways. What’s more, no company which happily issues iterations of the disastrous iTunes suite, can ever truly claim to have conquered the management and expression of beautifully simple digital concepts.
I’m no technology guru. I can’t really code, have little idea how hardware functions and only possess a relatively rudimentary grasp of the mechanics behind many websites. But I know enough to believe we are squandering a great deal of the promise offered by digital tools. It feels as though we have it all, and then we realise a 300 tonne aeroplane has the capacity to fly off the grid and into oblivion. We fantasise the modern world is a technological powerhouse, as sleek and flash as an advanced starship. All too frequently, it’s as wobbly and undependable as a particularly poor Tardis.
We can do better than this, but somehow we don’t.
Magnus Shaw – March 2014