A Prevaricator’s Progress by Trevor Plumbly

Ain’t progress grand? Or is it? I wonder if we really understand the ultimate costs of the new technology. Sure, I use it when it suits, like a lot of folk, but lately it’s becoming more of a habit than a convenience and more concerning, it’s a habit increasingly hard to break, with most middle level and major companies directing me to web sites rather than written or spoken contact. More disturbingly still, government departments have happily joined up, all in the name of efficiency and economy.

High Street shopping is facing a slow decline in most cities and larger towns. With the flood of cheap foreign goods, local manufacturers and small retailers simply can’t compete with warehouse style import stores with computerized staffing. Then, of course, there’s the increase in online shopping, which whilst convenient and often cheaper, is making shopping outings almost redundant. Shopping trips were the bridge between families and businesses and an important part of inclusive community life. Online shopping needs freedom from interruption thereby requiring isolation. Sadly, we’ve yet to realise that local interests and customer loyalty don’t really figure in internet shopping. Does a machine care if you’re not happy with the service or the product? Even if you’re totally disgusted, you’ll only end up trying to convey that to yet another machine.

Airlines and government departments are the biggest offenders when it comes to hiding from the public. It’s stressful enough when travel plans are disrupted, but faced with apologies from a disembodied electronic voice or information from a computer screen, public frustration and anger is inevitable and excusable. But worst, surely, is the attitude of public service agencies who arrogantly assume that even those seeking information or assistance of any form either own a computer or have access to, and knowledge of them. What about elderly people, disabled people and those on limited incomes? Yet again there is frustration and a sense of ‘them and us’, which could so easily be remedied by the provision of a human voice. In this area, it seems that too many wrong decisions have been made too soon; let’s hope that the right ones aren’t made too late.

Having gone this far I might as well finish the job: my views on texting are pretty well known – initially it was a quick, cheap form of communication and, as such, a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, it’s grown into a pervasive anti-social virus that encourages bad manners and lazy language skills. Twitter and Facebook still continue to amaze; is anyone’s life fascinating enough to justify their daily doings being transmitted to the internet family? Or maybe the recipient’s affairs are so boring that they get comfort from knowing someone else is in the same rut? Either way, the only way to keep your audience is to tart things up a bit. Let’s face it, who wants to read about anybody else’s everyday life? The one we’ve got is usually enough.

Once you start to embellish and invent, things tend to get a bit blurred. The dare-devil adventurer you swap news with could well be a boring old fart living alone in a bed-sit with a lap top. The shy, academic young bachelor your teenage daughter visits in a chat-room might be someone infinitely worse. Make-believe worlds are innocent enough but creating personalities seems valueless and mildly disturbing and it certainly adds nothing to the knowledge base of the young.

As the technology continues to broaden its range, the damage it causes will increase unless more checks and safeguards are introduced. Do children under the age of sixteen need cellphones? Do they need seven day computer access? Could we start using full language in text messages in an effort to discourage laziness? Should we prefer companies that actively employ people to deal with the public?

I guess progress always carries a cost, but what price computer technology and its offspring? The main fallouts are increased unemployment, the dumbing-down of our children’s aspirations, choice limitation, failing human communication, poor customer service and worst of all, loss of individuality. We’ve allowed the machine to store our knowledge for us, shouldn’t we stop before it forms our opinions? Like the lady sang ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone!’

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