Technology has improved tremendously over the last few centuries, transforming the lives of everyone on the planet in some way or another. Some inventions enable people to cut down the time spent on labour, both at home and in the workplace, for example the Spinning Jenny or the flying shuttle. The washing machine, for example, drastically affected the lives of housewives in the early twentieth century, enabling them to do more in the time available. But technological advancement is rapidly accelerating. Drones are moving from a secret military project to a consumer product. In a matter of years we will have widespread use of virtual reality technology.
The acceleration of technology is accelerating our lives too. Over the past decade, journalism has gone through several revolutions. Only a while ago, we’d report yesterday’s news today and today’s news tomorrow: the morning papers would provide information about what was going on in the world, accounting for the time that news would take to travel from place in the world to another. Today, we report today’s news as soon as possible. Information can be shared in seconds and articles written in minutes, distributed in the same time to a wide online audience across the globe.
Mobile phones perform more tasks than ever before, some would even go to the extent of saying that they aren’t really phones anymore. Using the most cutting-edge technology, with your mobile you can send emails, read a map, check the weather, browse the Internet and play games; app connoisseurs can find ways of using their phones to control the electronic appliances in their homes, record and edit music and compose small songs. In fact, few people actually use phones for their primary purpose anymore. Telephone calls and voicemail messages are dying out, replaced by unlimited text messages and instant messaging. People remain in near-constant contact without ever truly speaking to each other.
The high street is under pressure from large online corporations like eBay and Amazon. Why leave the house and browse the shops when you can buy all of those products and more from the comfort of my room and have it delivered to your doorstep?
Perhaps we can be optimistic about the ‘Great Acceleration’. More and more people are connecting themselves to the Internet and engaging with the global community. A student in York can speak over video call with an Australian surfer, an American writer or an Albanian carpenter, all at the click of a button. We have access to near-limitless information from numerous online encyclopaedias, scanned resources and texts.
But maybe we should be cautious of the ‘Great Acceleration’. With instant messaging comes a sort of responsibility to keep in constant contact as often as possible. Just the sight of the indication, ‘1 unread message’, exerts a strange power over us that few can resist. People work longer hours and perform easier tasks for lower wages than their predecessors, provided that their jobs have not been taken by automatons. Cultural conservatives worry that we are losing the ability to read a real map, read a real book and hold a decent, personal conversation with someone close to us, especially without briefly consulting our mobile phones.
A few years ago, a group of American students were asked to give up their mobile phones for three days. Of the two hundred and twenty students, only three managed to last seventy-two hours without accessing their precious devices. This was in 2003, long before the advent of iPhones, smart phones, Facebook and mainstream instant messaging.
Nonetheless, the scope of technology in our lives has not yet reached the point where we are totally unable to operate without it. We are still able to remember the complex plot of Game of Thrones even after binge-watching episode after episode. Though online discussion is widespread, most people seek to meet their conversation partners in the flesh after a while.
All major inventions in history have received some form of bad press or dismissal. At the time of its conception, the bicycle was believed to be an opportunity for unmarried men and women to speed away from the town to get up to no good – yet another invention or idea ridiculously expected to dangerously disrupt the existing social fabric. Many people are sceptical of the way that technology affects our lives, but, importantly, the ‘Great Acceleration’ continues because people want it to continue. We take a great interest in labour-saving technologies, innovations in communication and leisure-advancing tools. Technology can help us relax more, granting us more time by letting something electronic carry out our mundane activities; technology enables families to keep in close correspondence regularly, a real bonus for people who live far away from their loved ones. So, let the ‘Great Acceleration’ roll on.
This article was written following a lecture delivered by the journalist and writer Robert Colvile at the 2016 York Festival of Ideas. The lecture was titled “The Great Acceleration” in reference to Colvile’s book of the same title.