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What if we were to lose the last ten years of technological progress?

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May 31, 2018   3 mins

A few weeks ago, I suggested that, far from speeding up, the evolution of the digital world is slowing down. In particular I argued that much less has happened over the last ten years of the internet than in the decade before that.

I’m glad to say that someone else has noticed – John Harris of the Guardian is also less than impressed:

“Back in 1999, Google hit 1bn searches a year. Wifi began to make an impact about two years later. Thanks to the pioneers of Facebook and Twitter, the age of mass social media dawned between 2004 and 2006 – and non-stop posting, messaging and following was soon enabled by the iPhone, launched in 2007. These things have changed the world… But the revolution they represented is old now, and nothing comparable has come along for more than a decade.”

Harris goes on to excoriate the hype surrounding the tech giants’ increasingly insignificant product launches :

“Every now and again, at some huge auditorium, a senior staff member… will take the stage dressed in box-fresh casualwear, and inform the gathered multitudes of some hitherto unimagined leap forward, supposedly destined to transform millions of lives. (There will be whoops and gasps in response, and a splurge of media coverage – before, in the wider world, a palpable feeling of anticlimax sets in.)”

Tech optimists will be able to quote all sorts of figures about advances in processing power, bandwidth and other metrics for the size, speed and reach of the digital world. They’ll also be able to point to online products and services that just weren’t available ten years ago.

However, it’s not the growing capacity of the technology that Harris is calling into question, but whether it’s been used to do anything that’s both new and useful. There’s a key distinction to be made here between new products that change society because of what they enable us to achieve and those that change society merely because they’ve got better at grabbing our attention.

Imagine you could wave a wand and magic-away the last ten years of technological progress – specifically, progress in digital.

Waving that wand in, say, 2008 would have wiped out the iPhone and mass market smartphones generally – though mobiles of a more basic nature would still be common (game of ‘Snake’ anyone?). The internet would survive in a just-about-recognisable form, but it would be painfully slow. There would be no YouTube, no Twitter, no Facebook, no MySpace even. Social media as we know it would be gone.

However, the effect of waving the wand in 2018 would be… underwhelming. Smart phones wouldn’t as advanced or as ubiquitous, but they’d still be there, as would social media. Streaming of music and video would be back to its infancy (as a mass consumer product), but it would still be a thing. In fact, in terms of all the fundamental things you can do with digital tech, it’s hard to think what we’d lose.

There are a few bits and pieces we’d miss. Language translation these days is actually useful, though far from flawless. Voice recognition is breaking through as a technology that people use in their living rooms – definitely one to watch. Facial recognition systems are also making an impact; though more so in some places than others. Virtual reality has finally become a consumer product, but, thus far, a niche one – not much more significant than the 3D TVs we’re not rushing to buy.

Personally, I’m very grateful for the combination of the iPad Pro, the Apple Pencil and MyScript software, which converts my onscreen handwriting to text with near miraculous accuracy. However, I’ve yet to meet a single other person using the same to liberate themselves from the keyboard – maybe they’re all too young to have ever used anything else to write with.

Harris does admit that we may be on the brink of some genuinely significant breakthroughs:

“Amazing and sometimes life-enhancing innovations, I dare say, are being worked on by tech geniuses across the world. In fields such as driverless transport, virtual reality and blockchain technology, new inventions may eventually transform our lives, and fulfil the cliched big-tech promise about making the world a better place.”

As always, there’s a path to be trod between boundless optimism and hopeless pessimism. Knee-jerk cynicism is also to be avoided. However, before asking whether new technologies are good or bad for society, we should ask whether they matter that much one way or the other.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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