The Technology Illusion
When I first started driving, I owned a series of fairly dodgy pre-owned cars, and – though I sometimes look back on this period with some affection – the reality is that a journey was far more of an act of faith than I would be prepared to put up with now.
A number of things have moved on, of course: the technology has improved, the reliability of robot-built, computerised vehicles is unrecognisably better, the roads are better, the annual “MoT” tests have put most unserviceable vehicles off the road in the UK, and the whole approach to motoring has changed. When I consider the risks I put my young family through back in the 1970s I cannot help but shudder - driving in the Scottish Highlands in a Renault 12 which only worked some of the time, or travelling to France in an ancient 1300cc Cortina (yes, 1300cc - that’s about 1.5 horsepower with a tailwind, in a 2 ton vehicle consisting mostly of angle-iron girders, packed to the gunnels with kiddies’ high-chairs, camping equipment, and actual people).
It was not possible to go motoring in those days unless you had a working knowledge of distributors, carburettor jets, hydraulic bleed nipples and a whole catalogue of suspect bits. Far too often a long journey would require an early stop in a layby somewhere, with the bonnet up, trying to find where the power had gone, or what the strange noise was – or had we imagined it? The AA patrols were like guardian saints in the wilderness – if you got to your destination without some kind of mechanical catastrophe then you felt you ought to go to evening mass to give thanks. Those cars I had were really not fit for purpose – I used to lie awake, in my tent on my holiday campsite, wondering where in the Jura mountains I could get hold of an alternator for an obsolete British Ford, whether the brakes would make it all the way to Lausanne, whether the water-pump leak was serious, whether the exhaust pipe repair would last. If you listened really hard, you could hear these jalopies rusting. The only bits of the bodywork which were not rusting were the bits that had already rusted away and been replaced with fibreglass and porridge.
Nowadays, a car consists of a number of sealed boxes. Nobody really knows what they do – they are made by robots in a factory far away. If your car causes problems, which is very much less likely now, it is no use hoping to have a techie discussion with a proper mechanic about the distributor rotor – the mechanics are just fitters these days, and no-one remembers what a distributor was – diagnostics are carried out by plugging in a laptop computer, which will tell the man which box he needs to replace; if he has one in the store-room then you might get your car back today, otherwise he will email the supplier for one and you’ll get it back tomorrow.
It’s a different thing altogether, and I cannot pretend that it is not better. It seems to me that in the 1970s the reality of owning a car was that you had to understand, more or less, how it worked, or else you had to have a friend who could understand on your behalf. You were the direct successor to a whole line of men wearing their caps back to front, who knew that being a proper motorist required that you were also some kind of engineer. Now we are completely at the mercy of the repair-shop’s laptop, and everything is expensive, but at least we are excused the need to know how a car works, and – most importantly – we can now almost afford to take for granted that when we set out on a journey we are going to arrive at the far end.
The man with his cap back to front is a useful icon for my view of technology. When my father moved up to Scotland, in 2001, I took my laptop around to his new house to sort out a few issues with utility suppliers and so forth, and he was very interested in it. My dad was a very smart man – he was an electronics engineer who worked latterly for the UK Atomic Energy people, and he had lived through the development of computers. He had been involved with some of the earlier commercial applications of computers, performing forecast estimates of electrical supply requirements for power stations, doing mathematical modelling of reactor performance and so on. The computers he had worked with were the size of a room, with cabinets full of tape drives and deafening air-conditioning, and you communicated with them via punched paper tape or punched cards, but he knew all about computers.
My laptop intrigued him. “So what is it?” he asked, “Is it a word-processor, or a calculator, or an information storage device? – what is it?”
I said it was all these things, and could do a whole pile more – all we needed to do was provide a suitable application program, and the scope was almost limitless. I tried to explain conceptually what the functional bits of the machine were, and how an operating system glued everything together as “services” for the end-user. I also emphasised that I was not any kind of engineer, though I used computers a lot, and in fact earned my living with them. My dad was disturbed by the fact that he really couldn’t grasp this at all. For a start, anyone who was not any kind of engineer was probably beneath contempt, but he found it a surprise – and not a very comfortable surprise – that he was in a room with a small device costing a few hundred pounds, the nature of which he couldn’t get a feel for at all.
So he fell back on the engineering bit – “How does it work?” – and when my dad said how does it work, he meant semiconductors, bits of wire, transistors and logic gates (or their modern equivalent), diodes. When I admitted that I really didn’t know, had never built one and would be terrified to open one up, he snorted and jammed his cap firmly on, back to front, and that was the end of his interest in computers.
One alarming aspect of the passage of time is that we catch ourselves turning into our fathers. We use the Internet a lot here – well, as much as our rural broadband allows – and the other night the Contesse was doing some digging into her family history, and found that she had a great-uncle who served in France in WW1. She found him on a Roll of Honour listing the WW1 service of people who were natives of Morayshire (North East Scotland), though he was a sapper in the Canadian Army. She had no record of this great-uncle previously – he does not appear on any family trees which have been produced to date – so this was all interesting and new.
Good. Very good – but it occurred to me that we would have been unable to explain to my dad, for example, what we had just done. Not least, this is because I for one simply don’t really know. Where did the information come from? – where has it been stored? – how does the search engine work? how does the information get organised and returned? – and how does it happen so fast? Don’t know. I have a vague, doodly idea of how all this works, but I don’t wish to understand it in detail – I am an end-user; I only need to know how to make use of it. My dad would certainly have regarded the term end-user as derogatory. He would have realised that the information had not somehow been stored in some dark place within the Contesse’s laptop, but his attention would have been focused on how the Internet worked rather than how to make use of it. His cap was worn the wrong way round for an end-user. He would have found the Internet wonderful, and intriguing, but would have been distracted by the nuts and bolts. Well, clouds.
Today my son comes to tell me that he has some good news in connection with his computer. Normally the words “good news” and “computer” do not sit together well in this context, but on this occasion I am well impressed. He lost his mobile phone a few months ago – a severe upset which, of course, we all got to experience to the full. A big theme of last week was trying to get Windows 10 to work on his laptop – we succeeded after a lot of research and some in-fighting. As a consequence, he now finds that his Microsoft account includes access to a cloud-type facility (is that the word?) called OneDrive which was available to users of Windows 8 (which was used by his lost phone) but not Windows 7, as his laptop was previously. Now, to his delight, he finds that he has access to all the photos and documents he lost with his phone, since they had all been faithfully hoovered up into OneDrive, without his knowledge or intervention, and are sitting there waiting – like Greyfriars Bobby – for what? Again, I would have had dreadful trouble explaining to my dad where they have been, or how we came to get them back. It doesn’t matter, but I can feel my cap starting to turn a bit…
It would now be possible to go on at great length about the illusory tech-savvy to which a complete generation now appears to attach great prestige, and about how these people are the endest of end-users – my dad would have worried about them – he would even have worried on their behalf, since they do not appear to know quite what it is they are doing. Maybe it doesn’t matter, after all – maybe we don’t need real technicians – maybe we just keep throwing the stuff away and getting our credit card to buy a new one, and trust in the Cloud.
I won’t do that. I’d like to end with an affectionate story about the first time my mother met my SatNav unit. This was about 8 years ago, back in the days when my mum still went out. She was introduced to Martina, the very polite, calm, English voice which my Garmin uses to give instructions. Mum was very impressed, listening to the Voice of Martina as we drove along.
“She’s very good, isn’t she? – she seems very calm, and she must have an awful lot of people to deal with at the same time. Where is she?”
No, no, I said – she wasn’t anywhere; the voice was a computerised thing that lived in the little black box in my car. The only thing that was outside the car was a satellite – or maybe two satellites – I couldn’t remember.
“Good heavens,” said my mum, “you mean the woman is in a satellite?”
No, no – there is no-one in the satellite - the only thing the satellite does is send a signal which says “here I am”, and probably sends an accurate time signal – everything else is done inside the car. I was very much aware that my father would have been very unconvinced by my description, but I stuck with it.
“So there is no woman, then?” said Mum.
No – it is a series of digital recordings of a real woman’s voice, but it is a little computer making the noises. The system is just (just!) a satellite system and a little box on my windscreen.
My mother thought about this for a while, and then said, “No – I can’t see how that would work at all – there must be a woman somewhere who knows where your car is.”
So that was that. Nothing further to discuss about SatNavs.