Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Is it time to put a brake on technology?


IN THE late 18th and early 19th centuries, skilled weavers and textile workers, led supposedly by an enigmatic character called Ned Ludd, rioted and destroyed mechanised looms and knitting frames which threatened their livelihoods. The government responded by making machine-breaking punishable by death or transportation. Then, as now, the workers were the puppets of big business. The derogatory term ‘Luddite’ was coined to label anyone who challenged technology.

I started my agency business in the 1970s with no capital. Cashflow was therefore a perennial problem. My bank manager was an ex-wing commander, complete with handlebar moustache, who phoned regularly to bark at me about my overdraft. Eventually he proposed a deal. In those days, branch managers filed a month-end report to head office on the status of every business account. So he asked me to ensure that at the end of every month I was in the black, and then I could slip into the red at the beginning of the new month. I would never have built my business without him. When he retired, I shook his hand and gave him an expensive bottle of wine I knew to be his favourite. Imagine!

Rupert was replaced by Darren, an idiot. The overdraft was cancelled (happily, Rupert’s last act was to ensconce me in the bank’s factoring arm – I suspect he knew what was coming and was glad to go). After a run of Darrens, branch phone numbers were withdrawn and replaced with a call-centre number. On one of the last occasions I spoke to a Darren, I asked him whether he thought this new bank policy enhanced customer relations, and his reply was straight from the technology playbook: ‘That’s progress.’ Banking was one of the early and primary examples of progressive distancing between the customer and the supplier. It’s come a long way since. Notice the rapid disappearance of bank branches. In simple terms, they no longer see the need to talk to you. Technology does the job. Get used to it. In truth, we are no longer customers. We are users.

In my agency heyday, a substantial portion of the marketing budget was carved out for staff training in customer retention and customer service. Surreptitiously, expenditure on staff training has since been diverted to training the user. That’s you. You’re already well-trained – ‘press one for . . . press two for . . . for faster service, get off the phone and go to the website.’ And have you flown from Heathrow recently? Checking in is your job. Not just processing your own boarding card, but funnelling your own cases on to the conveyor after you’ve printed and attached your own labelling. Your passport is examined by a robot. True, there are some helpful Darrens around to assist the confused, but I suspect their employment contracts are short-term. No more greetings from the check-in desk, no more humanity (unless you’re travelling first class – geddit?).

Today, we’re more in Luddite territory than ever before. Technology continues to destroy skilled labour and any joy or satisfaction in the product of one’s labour. Eventually, even the unskilled jobs will disappear. 

Technology increases dependency. But try taking my mum’s washing machine away and suggesting she go back to boiling and scrubbing by hand, or beating the laundry on stones by the riverside. And who would ever exchange a mechanical digger for a shovel? The fact that you couldn’t make those things yourself, and are therefore dependent on those who can, is a trade you accept. But every new technology is a step closer to your enslavement.

In the late 1980s, I promoted BT’s mobile technology under the omnibus campaign title ‘ON THE MOVE’. It was aimed predominantly at the business market, with very obvious benefits. I didn’t foresee (though some cleverer than me surely did) that within 25 years the number of mobile phones in circulation would exceed the world’s population. Smartphones and social media have created an alternative world which many appear to occupy full-time – ‘here’s me walking up the stairs, LOL’. Emotional dependency is total. If you want to start a real riot, remove their mobile technology. Better still, threaten to remove it – I suspect you’d get total compliance with any diktat you chose. This is the real slavery today.

Technology separates us from each other. Why have offices when there is Zoom? As Marshall McLuhan said, ‘the medium is the message’. The image has become reality. I art-directed a lot of fashion photography in my younger days. I knew we were creating fantasy. But I also knew I was playing to viewers who believed it represented the real world. Dirk Bogarde often used to respond to his adoring fans with ‘Darling, it isn’t real, any of it’ (we treasured for some years an endearing rejection letter from him when we asked if we could come out to Cap Ferrat to make a documentary about him, to which he replied that he couldn’t bear the thought of a camera crew trampling over his flowerbeds – quite right!). Today, when smartphones are shoved in my face to show ‘what I done yesterday’, I make myself decidedly unpopular by saying, ‘put it down, now tell me what you saw, how you felt, what you touched, what you heard’. They have nothing to offer. They come from a dead world.

Finally, technology invokes a transfer of power. It took me a little time to get my head round this simple mindset. But it’s true. Each time you accept or permit a new technology, you give away more of your sovereign power. You don’t have much left.

So, how do we discern good tech from bad tech? It’s a personal decision, I guess, but at least let’s use a consistent benchmark of assessing how much of our individual freedom we’ll surrender by succumbing to it.

I despise the political party system, but I think I could make an exception for a Luddite Party, led by a charismatic Ned, with a manifesto dedicated to smashing some of the technological machine that is engulfing and enslaving us. And if his first target was surveillance technology, that would certainly have my unqualified support. 

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John Drewry
John Drewry
John Drewry has a background in marketing, owning and chairing an advertising agency for many years. He also holds an Equity card as a stage director and actor, and is Patron & Presenter for the Nursing Memorial Appeal.

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