Has technology made life more difficult?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 1996, 12:00am

YES There are two particularly terrific scenes in this summer's cinematic blockbusters. In Twister, which is all about the forces of nature, the baddie is a tornado-chaser. We know he's a baddie because he's incredibly high-tech and he travels with a fleet of sleek, black vans. The goodie, meanwhile, who's also a tornado-chaser, stands around Oklahoma sifting soil samples through his fingers and sniffing the wind. That's how we know he's a goodie.

And in Independence Day, where the baddies are really villainous, the worldwide forces of good are gathered together by a quaint system of communication. It's called Morse code. It did this old Luddite's heart good to see all those soldiers tap-tapping away, surrounded by their redundant gizmos. When the (computer) chips are down, you see, you just can't rely on machines to help you out.

I've never trusted technology. I think it complicates things horribly. I can't drive, I don't have a television or a video or a washing machine or a hi-fi system or a functioning cooker, and I've only just bought a fridge after three years because I've moved to the 27th floor of a building and I don't trust the lifts. If I'm going to be stranded up here, like all those people during Malaysia's blackout a few weeks ago, then I suppose I might as well have a decent supply of milk and Haagen-Dazs for the first couple of hours. Then the freezer section will flood the floor, short-circuit my kettle and I'll disappear in a blue flash.

I spent the first 10 years of my journalistic life writing everything in longhand which I then typed up. It was time-consuming but the worst that could happen was that my pen ran out of ink. It was a happy existence. When I came to Hong Kong, I had to get used to computers. Stories were sucked into the outer vortex, whole paragraphs were obliterated; last week, I lost access to my print manager. The icon just disappeared along with my sense of well-being. The gut-wrenching mystery of it was the second-worst thing - what was worse was realising how reliant I was on a beastly machine.

Of course, like horses, they see you coming and get uppity. For the whole of last summer, I didn't have a telephone. Everyone who rang sounded like Donald Duck, except when the telephone engineer was present. There is no quicker route to unhinged sanity than to have an expert tell you, after three visits, that the technology's working perfectly when you know it isn't. Naturally, they discovered a fault at the exchange but to this day I answer the phone with a degree of hesitancy, waiting for the quack.

Last night, my alarm clock lost two hours. The magnetic stripe on my bank card is playing up. Again. The MTR seems to be falling apart. I stand a good chance of being brained by a falling satellite. And all this is supposed to make life easier? NO Do you know how the Romans used to remove teeth? They used to hack a hole into the tooth and put a whole peppercorn in it. As saliva was absorbed into the peppercorn it expanded rapidly, splitting the tooth into shards which were then pulled out with pincers. I hate the dentist, but give me the drugs and the drill any day.

I can tell you right now that I would not be writing this if I was having to carve the letters into stone slabs with a sharpened flint. Sitting right in front of me is just one of thousands upon thousands of examples of how technology has made life easier - my computer. Surely I do not need to cite them. Take a look around you and you'll see for yourself.

Calculators and shavers are at the very banal end of the technology spectrum. They make life easier in a very small way. We could always add things up in our head if we had to.

The technology that really makes life easier is the technology we don't see. So well hidden is it that we now take it for granted. Electricity, for example, is a relatively recent innovation in the scale of human evolution, but how often do you think of the huge technological resources it requires to allow us to use it in the casual way we do? Such are the ways in which technology has made our physical lives easier. But has technology made our psychological lives any easier? I think without a shadow of a doubt that it has - or will.

When I saw the photographs taken by the Hubble Telescope of what the scientists called a 'star maker' I was amazed. The world today has a much more secular outlook than it has ever had in the past, making it far more difficult to come to any other conclusion than that the human race is far from being a creation of a divine being. Technology has removed humans from a position at the centre of a universe created for us. We are freaks in a random land.

But for me, technological explanations of our origins are rather like medical diagnoses of old - graced only by their ignorance. Someone with epilepsy 300 years ago would have been diagnosed as being possessed by the Devil. Today we know better.

When it comes to the universe, we are quack doctors once again. We are struggling now to ascertain our position in a universe free of a deity. Current explanations are unsatisfactory, but they are getting closer. I am confident technology will one day provide an explanation for why we are here. On that day, far from confirming our position as Godless creations, we will once again be at the centre of the universe. Why? Because we will have solved the riddle of our existence. If technology can do that, then technology will have eased one of the most pressing difficulties of being human. My mind would be easier.


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