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Modern life

If you asked me to list the most negative aspects of modern life – and indeed possibly in the entire history of the human race – I would unhesitatingly nominate as joint Number One the 21st Century’s technological wherewithal [e.g. the internet, social media, website ‘cookies’, sat-nav and those ‘spider’ thingies that web search engines use to trawl your email and website usage in order to gain information about your internet habits that may or not get passed on to Big Brother governments who wish to ‘monitor’ you and/or advertisers and others who might with to ‘target’ you with their offerings or supposed bargains] and the willingness of people not only to use it but seemingly revel in doing so.

Not long after I began ruminating on this topic it occurred to me that the fundamental issue is whether or not all progress is good.

On the face of it, it would seem blindingly obvious that it ought to be but the actualité may not be quite as simple as that.

If you assume that by its very nature progress gives us greater control over the world around us there is an an extent it depends upon what we – or indeed others – then do with it.

Roughly two centuries ago Malthus and others worked out that – since by definition even the Earth’s rich panoply of natural food resources were finite – there might come a point at which the human population would no longer be able to feed or support itself.

Then along came progress in agricultural techniques and animal husbandry and eventually successive scientific breakthroughs in genetical engineering, factory farming and means of distribution and bingo – our wonderful and unique species had bought itself some more time.

What’s not to like about that – or indeed the endless developments in medical science that have resulted in the eradication (or the minimising of the effects) of diseases and conditions that had previously been either life-limiting or fatal?

On the other hand, some might argue that in the dock should be developments in weaponry (or in things that could become weaponry), e.g. chemical gas and nuclear energy.

These may have begun grounded in the cause of benign research of some sort designed to improve the human world, or perhaps deliberately with harmful intent in mind.

Adapting for these purposes, if this is not a step too far, the George Mallory case for climbing Everest, to the anguished query “Why did you deliberately devise – or alternatively merely adapt for ‘positive’ effect – chemicals potentially capable of being used in the field of warfare?” the reply might be given “Because they were there” or “Because we could”.

Which brings me to another potentially profound point: there is no guarantee that all progress is good.

As an oldie I has to tread carefully here simply because the mere fact of being in a middle to late stage of life tends to make one naturally prey to conservatism – and I don’t mean in the political party sense. We are all ‘of our time’, by which I mean to refer to our youth, when our enthusiasm and appetite for life and all these can bring in terms of thoughts, feelings and experiences is at its greatest.

Human nature determines that it is this period of our existences – when we seek out and register (and also test) the supposed boundaries of ‘how the world works’ and then eventually knuckle down to our jobs or careers and live our lives – at which our beliefs and attitudes tend to crystallise.

It’s like going to a new school – one begins by learning the rules, both formal and informal, of the establishment (and the punishments if any for transgression) and then operate within them – or not, as we can to some extent decide for ourselves – in applying ourselves to surviving and/or then hopefully flourishing within the ‘society’ of the place for as long as we happen to be there.

The complication arises when some development – e.g. a new headmaster, an economic disaster that plunges the school into administration, or even a new technology – upturns the status quo and brings into being a different one.

Those teachers and students who had previously being bumbling along under one set of absolutes (or near absolutes) are now faced with a new regime – or perhaps none at all. With the best will in the world, despite any apparent benefits of the new situation, there will also be a degree of common unsettledness at the fact there has been any change at all.

Going back in terms of maths – and that is a slightly odd example for me to cite  because I was never a fan – I can just about recall the term at my secondary school when slide rules came in as an aid to calculation.

Up to that point all arithmetic had been learned by rote and/or the most recent old-fashioned method in use.

The new device was something of a shock to masters and pupils, both of whom (I seem to recall)  were somewhat sceptical about the ‘new’ and regretfully nostalgic about the ‘old’, no doubt in the pupils’ case partly because it soon dawned upon us that all the slog and pain that we had endured since the age of five or six in getting to grips with the ‘old’ had now effectively overnight been rendered a complete waste of our youthful time that – had we been ten years younger – could instead have been spent at play or mischief.

[Let us here leave aside for the moment such later developments as calculators …].

Which brings me to my thought for the day.

Last night I spotted this piece by Alex Hern on the subject of the latest development in AI (or “Artificial Intelligence”) that appears upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Despite the byline to this article, the author was not involved in its composition. I am today running a pilot test of the Rust’s new AI system which – if successful – may eventually result in ‘elements of restructuring’ that involve the letting go off some superfluous staff and thereby result in greatly increased profits for the organisation.]




About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts