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December 4, 2012

All systems go?

The ongoing search for stimulating and enjoyable bedtime reading for my three year old son has led us to his current favourite library book which tells him everything he needs to know about railway stations. This book follows a father and his children enjoying a half-term trip and a businesswoman on her way to a meeting; in each case, the destination is London.

Before you conclude that this is a modern tale of both gender and boardroom diversity, it’s worth pointing out that these roles are perhaps way ahead of their time as this book was first published in 1997 – and this is where my point starts.

The book shows tickets being bought at the station, having sought travel advice and train times from both station-based staff and a telephone helpline. As the train approaches the platform, it obeys signals that are controlled by a man in a room somewhere while being announced by a lady in another room. Mail is shown being loaded onto the train while the businesswoman finds a seat with a table where she can work while her train speeds on to the capital.

Takes you back to an innocent golden age doesn’t it?

Maybe not, as much of the fabric of this scenario has now been replaced by technology – from online ticketing and timetable information to the advent of email and video conferencing, meaning that sending "snail-mail" or taking a whole day to attend a 60 minute meeting is now considered inefficient for most businesses and individuals. Even traditional railway controls such as signalling and platform announcements have become automated and no longer reliant upon a person sat in a room to happen.

So, everything’s better with technology then?

Well, that depends on your definition of better – undoubtedly, technological advances in rail travel have been the response to demands from society: those demands are both qualitative and quantitative. However, when considering the impact of technological advances more widely than just the railways, we must be more critical if we are to conclude that we have made first class progress in applying technology consistently to all our needs.

To examine whether or not progress has actually been made, we have to ask two questions: how so much has changed and why. The former question of how so much has changed is obviously down to the advent of new technology – more intelligent computer systems, cheaper, more reliable products and better networks and infrastructure.

The latter question of why is more curious however – natural economies of scale, increasing consumer demands and the need to reduce costs in both public and private sectors are undeniable. What about quality though? The human spirit makes progress inevitable as we crave improvement, but is it always for the better?

Another favourite bedtime story, this time for my seven year old son, is "Warhorse", written by Michael Morpurgo and recently remade as a movie by Steven Spielberg. Originally written from the eponymous horse’s perspective, it tells the story of how Joey goes from working as a Devon farm horse to serving on both sides in the First World War. There are obvious parallels in this story with technological advances making things obsolete – the introduction of farmyard machinery and the motor car threatens Joey’s role on the farm, machine guns brutally relegate the cavalry to the history books and mobile tanks replace static infantry almost overnight. Even the outbreak of peacetime conspires to make Joey and his human handlers redundant towards the end of this thrilling tale.

Taking Joey’s story as an illustration, the replacement of living workers by technology may not always be a bad thing – the introduction of "labour-saving" devices such as combine harvesters, washing machines, printing presses and computers have streamlined our lives and given us efficiency and reliability on an ever increasing scale – but as ever, this is at the expense of those made redundant by that technology. Perhaps this is the trade-off we should be discussing – is progress at the expense of quality of life and full employment really worthwhile? The quality argument comes back here – progress through technology must not lose sight of the bigger picture of harnessing an individual’s work ethic to support a nation’s output simply to maintain the share price.

It would be foolish and naive to point to a few recent problems – IT system failures within banks and online entertainment networks, as well as the basic failure to add up accounting information correctly in the case of one Cheltenham-based clothing retailer – and suggest that technology has damaged our lives overall. However, we must always consider the impact that progress through technology makes on all aspects of our lives and assess that impact in more than just financial terms.

Time for bed now – what shall we read about tonight?

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