I have seen a few letters in our local newspaper recently from older people condemning the perceived rudeness and lack of consideration of our young people. ‘Twas ever thus and I suspect ’twill ever be but I doubt there is much truth in it. Recent conversations have confirmed that there is a clear generation gap between me and my children. As I was growing up it was obvious to me that my parents were a different species but I was convinced that this was some anomaly of the age – that by sheer chance the time around my birth was a period of extraordinary technological and social development and I had luckily jumped from the pier onto the departing ship of discovery. My view of history is similarly coloured- “the Victorian Age” was one solid mahogany display case in the museum of British history rather than a continuum of change.
As I approach my half century I realise just how fleeting some things are and how limited our view of the future often is. I was listening to a podcast lately which was discussing how wrong future predictions often are. They gave the example that, generally, these predictions focus on technological anticipation and, in doing so miss the enormous social change. The example given was that in the 1950s predictions of the future were focused on the Space and Nuclear Ages and completely missed the enormous impact that computers and birth control would have on our society. It’s not about the technology, it’s about how it is applied.
A recent Freakonomics podcast discussed the vast improvements in car safety. Freakonomics is wonderful at debunking popular myth and getting to the heart of the matter. One discussion was about the impact on mobile phones on car safety. Apparently there is little evidence that talking on a mobile phone while driving has a negative impact on safety. On the contrary it seems to improve concentration, reduce tiredness and the presence of a mobile phone reduces fatalities because emergency services can be contacted faster. As a further example of how technology is merely an enabler for social change they discussed the rapid development of automated car technology. Within my lifetime the expectation is that we will be able to buy fully automated cars. The impact though is expected to be that the congestion problems will be resolved – because every piece of empty space on roads can be filled by cars driving at higher speeds very close to each other. In addition there is a major benefit for the elderly and disabled and it will provide far greater independence for them. Road transportation could become a utility like broadband or phone services – you just choose how luxurious and large the pod you travel in will be! None of the technology involved is bleeding edge and there are prototypes happily making their way around mock streets today.
This is an example of how a relatively small change in the application of technology can radically alter the way of life but the application of it is very difficult to predict. Will fuel economy become a redundant question? What will happen to the car enthusiast who loves driving? Will we end up travelling further or be limited in our range? The limiting factor in this will be the enabled road network and so will the topology of our towns and cities change? Could this turn on its head and become the transportation network for freight rather than for consumers – we stay still but everything comes to us in a far more efficient way.
Just where technological change is applied is interesting. I remember in my youth that Print On Demand was an emerging technology. The assumption was that by now I would be printing my own magazines and newspapers at home and big printing presses would be redundant. Instead the days of the enormous print runs are over but there is a big move towards electronic media on tablets instead of the physical copy. With the development of 3d printing technology we have a similar challenge – will we all have our own 3d printer and print our own food and technology or will it merely reduce transportation costs in the supply chain.
Twenty years ago I worked in the IT industry. Everyone needed the latest, fastest chip and the biggest disk. PCs would be upgraded every 18 months. What seemed to be driving the momentum was gaming. Most business applications were pretty relaxed with memory and processing power but the latest games needed ever more memory and graphics capability – older PCs just wouldn’t run the latest game. The launch of the games console has completely revolutionised the PC marketplace. The technology has stabilised, upgrades are less frequent and the emphasis is on mobility and networking. PCs are just one of a range of devices that households contain. We now have an astonishing array of Internet-enabled devices in our homes – we have a maximum 17 in our home. They all just enable behaviours – how and how often we communicate, socialise and entertain ourselves. The “always on” networking and devices mean we are far more traceable and contactable and this affects our behaviours. To older generations this can come across as rudeness. I still struggle to see people sitting in business presentations and working on emails or texting at the same time. I personally don’t like people talking on mobile phones at length in public places. The generation before me would have said the same about extended time hogging the expensive telephone lines. The other impact of the network is that everything for the latest generations is “on demand”. I felt I had made a huge leap when I went from terrestrial TV to a TV with pause and rewind and digital recording. Today’s children seldom watch TV via a TV set. They stream and have no concept of which channel or in which country the series is airing. They want to watch what their peers are talking about so that they can discuss it. Whereas my conversation in the office will go along the lines of “did you see x last night?” The next generation latched on to it within minutes from social networking and then watched the previous series back to back. They communicate with each other by a range of social media but they move to where the conversation is so telephone and email are the communications of last resort. Texting is on the way out and chat through social media is the main vehicle. Even as I drag myself into Skype and marvel at being able to videoconference in the comfort of my own home I realise that our teenagers are exploring the messaging capability within and are way ahead of me.
My parents weren’t of a different species. What I mistook for technological ineptitude was merely that they didn’t have the social need within their peers. If they had leapt into the world of PCs and set up and email account who would they have communicated with? Attempts at prediction are almost certainly doomed to failure but what it am sure of is that it is going to be OK. There isn’t going to be a doomsday scenario. Generally people of all ages have goodwill and what can be perceived as rudeness is just exploration and development. Without it we stagnate.