So we are hurtling towards the end of another year like a freight train and I
have been talking about different aspects of technology each and every week. I
thought it might be a good time to pause for a moment, sit up and be a little
philosophical. I am in technology so I may be the wrong person to answer my own
question but I talk and use technology almost every minute of every day and I
want to ask the seemingly simple question. Does technology improve our lives?
may need to refine my thought process slightly. The word technology is
all-encompassing. The shaping of a rock to be used as a crude tool to cut fruit
from a vine was probably the first use of technology. That tool may have been
used to cut trees for shelter or shape branches for spears for hunting. In a
broad sense, technology could easily include all the tools; utensils; machines;
etc. we use every day. In that sense, the answer to my question is relatively
simple. Given the choice of sleeping under a tree and having just my bare hands
to keep me alive – or living as we do today, I will take the Sealy Posturepedic
every single time. It may be cheating, but to progress the philosophical
debate, I will refine the question. Instead of the broad picture of technology,
which I think we can safely say improves our lives, does modern electronic
technology improve our lives? Now we are talking about our mobile phones; computers;
the time that WWII ended, a phenomenon call the ‘tyranny of numbers’ was noted
where some computational devices were so complex that the loss from failures
and downtime exceeded any benefits. The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the most
expensive weapons project undertaken by the United States in WWII and the plane
used to carry out the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Each of
the 3,970 planes built carried up to 1,000 vacuum tubes (or valves as they are
often called) and over ten thousand passive components. Each additional
component reduced the reliability and lengthened the troubleshooting time.
Traditional electronics had reached a standstill.
first significant step forward occurred in 1948 when the first working
transistor was built but the more important invention was the operation of the
first working Integrated Circuit (IC) which occurred in 1960. As Jack Kilby,
winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his part in the invention of the
Integrated Circuit, said, “What we didn’t realise then was that the Integrated Circuit
would reduce the cost of electronic functions by a factor of a million to one.
Nothing had ever done that for anything before.”
1965, Gordon Moore from Intel observed that the number of components per
Integrated Circuit was doubling every year and expected this trend to continue.
He later revised the prediction to a doubling every two years. This is the
oft-quoted “Moore’s Law” that is an observation rather than a physical law.
1975 the Cray 1 Supercomputer was introduced. It weighed over 5t and sold for
US$8.86 M (AU$59M in current terms) and was capable of 80 Million Floating
Operations per Second (MFLOPS). A current Apple Watch weighs 125g, sells for AU$529
and is capable of 6 GFLOPS. By comparison, that is a device on our wrist that
is eighty times faster than a seventies supercomputer but the Cray 1 was
150,000 times dearer and 40,000 times heavier.
does that improvement in electronic technology improve our lives?
often hear people bemoan the fact that technology is taking over the world or
has taken over our lives. We are glued to our phones or stuck sitting at a
keyboard all day. I remember being in Sydney at a café and noticed four Gen Z
people sitting at a table. Not only were they not talking but all four had
their head in their phones. I pulled up a chair and sat down at the table and
pulled out my phone to do the same. They stopped and looked at me and each
other – obviously wondering why this old guy was sitting down at their table. I
asked if they knew each other. They said they did. I apologised and told them
that I thought this was the table for people that had no friends but wanted to
use their smartphones. I walked away chuckling to myself but when I looked back
they had missed my point and were all back on their smartphones – probably
tweeting about some weird old guy that just hassled them and what a great time
they were having with their friends.
are losing the ability to communicate (and communicate doesn’t mean send a
tweet to your followers). The average person uses their smartphone 221 times
per day. The group from 18-24 use their phones for 4.3 hours every day but even
the over-55 group are on their phones for over 2 hours each day. The average
person watches 4.9 hours of television every day and sits in front of a
computer for 3.6 hours. By the time you get through your screen time then
sleep, eat and shower, no wonder it feels like there is no time left to talk to
people. It sounds like I might be building an argument for technology being
detrimental to our lives but I am not quite there.
bottom line is that we have a choice. A phone has a button that you can use to
turn it off. We make active choices to spend time in front of our devices. Used
wisely, the choice and power that electronic technology gives us can absolutely
improve our lives. We just need to remember that we are the master and our
devices are the slaves. If those roles are reversed, that is when we have a