Women’s health: Society, Storytelling, Technology (3)

Source: Huffington Post

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

Back in 2001, I wrote a paper based on part of my PhD research about function-structure-behaviour and got to thinking about serendipitous design which is when a happy accident has led to the discovery of a new thing. There are some famous examples like the text message and the post-it note, but, I wanted something different. So, I emailed round asking people, and got back vulcanised rubber, velcro, nylon stockings, mmm different, and then a female psychologist suggested the vibrator. Oh my!

The vibrator, so the story goes, was originally invented to help doctors who had tired hands from giving ‘pelvic massages’ to women to relieve their hysteria, long before it became a tool for pleasure. It does beg the question why did Victorian doctors starting putting their hands up women’s dresses to help with their minds? It reminds me of the time my mother nodded towards the consultant on a ward round who examined her and said: He’s never a doctor.

Older and wiser today, I applaud the psychologist’s creativity and think the vibrator is an extraordinary example of serendipitous design (though designed by men, so phallic shaped which is hardly surprising.  Lynne Segal says, even today the language of sex is phallocentric). Back then, I imagined myself at the conference in front of a load of men saying the word vibrator and went with the post-it note instead. Extraordinary example or not, it really wasn’t worth the aggro it could cause in the brain of any excitable male, who unable to see past my female physical form, would assume that me saying vibrator was code for please hit on me later. I mean why else would I be there, except to get me a maaaaan?

I have had many conversations with female academics who work in engineering and computing who have said: I don’t wear peep toe sandals, I don’t wear nail varnish, I don’t wear make-up. They eradicate anything which draws attention away from the smart things they are saying. And yet, I do not know a single male on this earth in any field who has ever felt the need to analyse his appearance in this way for fear that he will not be taken seriously, nor treated with the respect he deserves. Women are constantly subjected to being viewed as little more than objects even in a professional environment when they are there with a job to do. And, there are days, even now, when I feel the way a female cousin said to me once about a man disrespecting her: Somedays you just want to take an iron bar to the idiot and beat that respect out of him.

But, back to Victorian times, when doctors were busy putting their hands up their patients’ dresses and not getting struck off for it, the medical profession (men) believed that they had to keep a woman’s sexuality in check by getting them married and having children, as they believed that celibacy led to insanity.

And, once in that role of wife, the woman was encouraged not to do too much intellectual activity as it diverted the blood to her brain instead of her reproductive organs.

In her book Women, Madness, and Medicine, Denise Russell examines the lives of various writers such as Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Gilman Perkins who were advised to take a rest cure to dispel their creative urges, which were unhealthy. The only creativity they should have been doing was making babies. Motherhood was sold to women, as Marion Shaw puts it in Man Does, Woman Is, as their gift or their duty.

A woman could be an inspirer, but not the inspired; the muse, not the poet; the presence, not the activity. It may be a flattering notion (FOR FIVE MINUTES) but ultimately it was, and is, a dreadful, dreadful lie causing women to be defined from the outside, and to not be defined by themselves, and it still lingers to this day.

Danielle Laporte calls it the Patriarchal Lie of Authority: We know what is best for you and if you don’t do what we say then there is something wrong with you, which I guess is where #mansplaining comes from. How many men have come over to me and explained stuff about things they have no idea? Sometimes a male student will do it during lectures and I think: You have been thinking about this for two weeks under my guidance and I have been thinking about this 20 years, and yet you have to explain something to me. Would you do this if I was a man? And, when we get to assignment time you can guarantee the guy hasn’t really understood, because he wasn’t listening, he was too busy mansplaining.

On this blog, I have spent a lot of time talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but nowhere on that triangle is there a level which tells you to suck it up, defer to someone else, and do exactly what someone else prescribes is good for you. No! No one knows what is better for you than yourself, so why does society insist on telling women exactly what is good for them, when society itself is so damaged and damaging?

Russell says that there have always been more women than men resident in mental hospitals since the 19th century, because a woman’s role in society is mentally unhealthy and yet women are encouraged to conform to this role because that is how they are socially valued. And still today, many buy into this. There was a great article this week in the Mirror about Louise Rednapp who fell hook, line and sinker for the con trick that domestic goddess breeds domestic goodness. Which sometimes it does. But other times breeds isolation, resentment and frustration, especially when it comes to sacrificing your own self-actualisation to support someone else’s.

Consequently, given the boring and restrictive lives many women led there were many forms of madness and women’s complaints. Once society had done away with healing women – hunted as witches – and the church gave up on the theory that mad people were possessed by the devil, the patriarchy moved into medicine and often conflated medical treatment with morals.

Robert Brudenell Carter studied men’s mental health in the Crimea, but he still had a theory that women were more emotional, had stronger sexual desires, and were hysterical for an audience. It didn’t occur to him, like the men he studied, they were doing something they just didn’t want to do and which wasn’t at all what they thought they had signed up for. His cure for their oppression was marriage. It was imperative to avoid women becoming that female archetype of voracious hunger and sexual insatiability, ‘cos wouldn’t we all be hunting down men for our next shag if we weren’t married? His theory was a ridiculous confusion of medicine and morals, and don’t get me started on the randy old bugger St Augustine and his original sin, just ‘cos he couldn’t keep it in his pants, he had to make it into something outside of himself.

Consequently, poor women or single mothers could be committed. Women who engaged in political activity could be committed. Any deviant behaviour was viewed as illness rather than an unwillingness or inability to fit into an oppressive stereotype and was treated as such and these women would be committed in the name of the patriarchal lie.

And, it is this pathological approach which extended not just to mental health but to physical health and still exists today. Menopause, pregnancy, and menstruation are managed like they are illnesses that we have to get through. They are scheduled and treated with hormones and painkillers with very little celebration of it being a natural process, the cycle of life, and trust in the body. Don’t get me wrong, without the intervention of modern medicine during childbirth I would not be here to tell the tale, nor would my daughters. But, how often have women been dismissed as being hysterical? Or told to come back in a year if it hasn’t sorted itself out? Or told: that pain is not that bad, it will improve after you have kids, from a man who will never experience childbirth nor period pain. And, when I hear men grunting in Bikram like they are about to give birth, I can’t help but wonder like feminist Flo Kennedy, how different the world might be if men were the ones who got pregnant and had kids. Would they remain in a restricted role? Would women go about explaining how things work incorrectly to them? Would they be told to stop whinging and suck it up? Just because a woman can give birth, it doesn’t mean that it is the only thing she can or should do. And, she shouldn’t be told how to live her life.

I can’t find a reference to this, but originally women were barred from the priesthood because of menstruation. How could they possibly hold the sacrament when they were unclean and bleeding? Ironic, given that it is supposed to represent or be (in Roman Catholicism) the body and blood of Christ. It is similar to the idea that women after childbirth weren’t allowed in society until they were ‘churched’ and made ‘clean’ again. Seriously? You can’t make this stuff up. Oh no right, they did.

We live nowadays in a society which publicly embraces equality but in reality does little to effect change because these thoughts and ideas about what a woman should be are so deeply entrenched and institutionalised, that it is going to take a revolution to shake off the subordinate social status of women and to see that women can have their own interpretation of the world, we don’t need the menfolk to explain to us how it all should work. They need to be quiet and listen to who we think we should be in it.

Game theory & social media (3): What are you playing at?

Source: buzzfeed.com

[Part 3 of 4: Game theory & social media: Part 1Part 2, Part 4]

Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin with being personal – Kathleen Kelly, You’ve got mail (1998)

Kermit drinking his tea and throwing shade makes me laugh. However, I think we all understand his frustration. It seems that in business and personal relationships, people play games. We may not know why, and we may not know the rules. But as we saw in part 2, before we react, we might want to find out more: if a game is being played, which one, and if we want to play or not.

Games, payoffs, and winning

A game is normally defined as having two or more players, who have a choice of possible strategies to play which determine the outcome of a game. Each outcome has a payoff which is calculated numerically to represent its value. Usually, a player will want to get the biggest payoff possible in order to be certain of winning.

Dominance, saddles, and mixed strategies

Playing the strategy with the biggest payoff is known as the Dominance Strategy, and a rational player would never do otherwise, but it’s not always easy to identify which strategy is best.

So, players sometimes take a cautious approach which will guarantee a favourable result (also known as the Saddle Point Principle). Other times, there is no saddle point so players have to choose at random what strategy to play and hope for the best. They can calculate the probability of mixing up strategies and their chances of winning. If their probability skills are not great they can play experimentally and record their results 30 times (for statistical significance) to see which strategies work.

How does this work on social media? Well, no one knows how social media works so a trial and error approach whilst recording results can be useful. Luckily, Twitter and Facebook both provide services and stats to help.

Free will, utility, and Pareto’s principle

A major question is whether players have free will or not and whether their choices are predetermined based on who they are playing with and the circumstances in which the game takes place. This can depend on the amount of information players have available to them,  and as new information becomes available, they play a specific strategy, thus seeming as if they didn’t have free will at all.

Players assign numbers to describe the value of the outcomes (known in economics as utility theory) which they can use to guide themselves to the most valued outcome.

This is useful if we have a game where the winner doesn’t necessarily take all. If the players have interests which are not opposed and by cooperating the players can end up potentially with a win-win situation or at least a situation where everyone gains some benefits and the solution is not the worst outcome for everyone involved. This is known as the Pareto Principle.

On social media? Retweeting and sharing other’s businesses news is a nice way of ensuring everyone gains some benefits because with a potential market of 307 millions and there is enough of a market to go around for everyone to win-win and of course, reciprocate.

The Nash equilibrium

Taking this further is the Nash equilibrium which was named after John Nash, who proved that every two player game has one equalizing strategy (either pure or mixed) in each game. By looking at the equilibrium strategies of the other players, everyone plays to equalize. This is because, no player has anything to gain by changing only his or her own strategy, so it is win-win.

Are you chicken?

Ducks have been known share out the bread thrown to them so they all get some rather than one duck eating everything. This is known as the Hawk-Dove approach in game theory. When there is competition for a shared resource, players can choose either conciliation or conflict.

Research has shown that when a player is naturally a hawk (winner takes all) and plays amongst doves, then the player will adapt and cooperate. Conversely a dove amongst hawks will adapt too and turn into a fighter.

If there are two hawks playing each other the game is likely to go chicken, which is when both players will risk everything (known as mutually assured destruction in warfare) not to yield first.

We adapt very easily to what is going on around us, and on social media this is totally the same. In a 2014 study Pew Research Center found that people are less likely to share their honest opinions on social media, and will often only post opinions on Facebook with which they know their followers will agree – we like to conform.

The volunteer’s dilemma

In contrast, the volunteer’s dilemma is an altruistic approach where one person does the right thing for the benefit of everyone. For example, one meerkat will look out for predators, at the risk of getting eaten, whilst the rest of the meerkats look for food. And, we admire this too. We love a hero, a maverick, someone who is ready to stand up and be different.

The prisoner’s dilemma

But we hated to feel duped which is why the prisoner’s dilemma is one of the most popular game theories of all. Created by Albert W. Tucker in 1950, it is as follows:

Two prisoners are arrested for a joint crime and put in separate interrogation rooms. The district attorney sets out these rules:

  1. If one of them confesses and the other doesn’t, the confessor will be rewarded, the other receive a heavy sentence.
  2. If both confess each will get a light sentence. Which leads to the belief that:
  3. If neither confesses both will go free.

It is in each prisoner’s interest to confess (dominant strategy = 1) and if they both do that satisfies the Pareto principle (2). However, if they both confess, they are worse off than if neither do (3).

The prisoner’s dilemma embodies the struggle between individual rationality and group rationality which Nigel Howard described as a metagame of a prisoner cooperating if and only if, they believe that the other prisoner will cooperate, if and only if, they believe that the first prisoner will cooperate. A mind boggling tit-for-tat. But, this is common on Twitter with those: Follow me, I will follow you back and constant following and unfollowing.

And, in any transaction we hate feeling like we have been had, that we were a chump, that we trusted when we shouldn’t have, which is why some people are so angry and like to retaliate. Anger feels better than feeling vulnerable does. But, great daring starts with vulnerability, the fear of failure, and even the failure to start, the hero’s quest shows us that.

Promises, threats, and coalitions

As we add more players, all rationality may go out of the window as players decide whether to form coalitions or to perform strategic style voting. If we introduce the idea of the players communicating then we add the issues of trust in promises, or fear of threats and it all starts to sound rather Hunger Games.

On social media aggression and threats are common, because of prejudice, or group think, especially on Twitter where there is no moderation. And, online and off, we have all been promised things and relationships which have ultimately left us disappointed, and told us that we have been misinformed, like the fake news, we’ve been hearing about a lot lately.  Fake news is not new, in other contexts it is known as propaganda.  And, if it is not completely fake, just exaggerated, well that’s not new either, New Labour loved spin which led to a sexed up dossier, war and death.

Kermit’s next move

Philip D. Straffin says in his book Game theory and strategy, that game theory only works up to a point, after which a player must ask for some clarification about what is going on because mathematics applied to human behaviour will only explain so much.

And so we turn back to Kermit. What is he to do?  He has passive-aggressively asked for clarification and had a cup of tea. What’s his next move? Well, he could wait and see if he gets a reply (tit for tat). Who will crack first (chicken)? But, with the texts he has sent her, it is likely that her response is somewhat predetermined, or perhaps not, perhaps she will repond with Nash’s equilibria, or at the very least the Pareto principle of everyone not getting the worst outcome.

Alternatively, he could take a breath and remember that he is talking to someone he likes and with whom he wants to spend some time, someone human with the same vulnerabilities as him. He could adopt the volunteer’s dilemma approach and send her an honest text to explain that his feelings are hurt, he thought they had something special, and that she liked communicating with him as much as other people. By seeking clarification in this way, Kermit may just end up having a very nice evening after all –  or not. Whoever said: All’s fair in love and war, didn’t have instant access to social media and all the complications it can cause.

[Part 4]

Moments in modern technology

Final cover from film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

If I like a moment, I mean me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera, I just wanna stay in it.

– Sean O’Connell, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

In The power of now, Eckart Tolle says that in any given moment we have three options: remove ourselves from it, change it, or accept it totally.

Sometimes though the present moment is just too much for us, so we do what we can to overcome it. Tolle says that this is an insane way to live, because the present moment is all we have, which is all good and well for Tolle. He gained enlightenment on a park bench in Russell Square and has been euphoric ever since. Whereas the rest of us, for better or for worse, have to rely on modern technology to get a semblance of that same euphoria, which is where things become tricky. Often, technology owns us, instead of the other way round.

Capturing a moment

With our phones, we can capture and share any moment we ever experience. And, if we feel unable to live fully in a given moment, then we can always postpone it and then experience it later. Sometimes, we don’t always want to though. When my daughter was born with kidney failure, I kept a blog for the first two years of her life, because I couldn’t bear talking about it on the telephone to anyone. I read it the other day for the first time in ages and really didn’t enjoy remembering all the moments my memory has tidied away.

But, even when a moment is brilliant and we recognise its importance, we can risk not experiencing it at all, because we are trying to so hard to capture it. This is when we step back, hold up our phone, and miss it. A while ago, I wondered about how different my round-the-world-year would be if I were to experience now. I would be travelling with my phone, recording everything and uploading it. Would I really be experiencing it? And afterwards, could I relive what I didn’t experience? Or, would I retroactively experience something else altogether depending on how I curated all those captured moments online?

In À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust revisits his life to find meaning, and explores what he calls involuntary memory. Eating his infamous madeleine, the taste of which evokes his childhood, Proust slips out of the present and into the past. And, then of course the act of writing and musing on his past in order to find meaning in it, creates a new moment: the combination of the present moment of writing and the past moment which exists in memoir only – a simulacrum of the two moments which created it.

Imagine if he had had a whole Internet full of his memories to write his memoir from. And, what happens to us now when we can record every single thing we ever do, and what gets said and done to us?

Feeding the need

There are at least a dozen times a day when we are needled, when our needs are not met, and our bodies immediately react with the flight or fight response. Imagine being able to record and remember every single needle, every single moment when we felt a lack? Joe Dispenza says in Breaking the habit of being yourself that we will try to run from any emotion which is painful, because to look at it is too uncomfortable. Amazingly, we can run away very easily with modern technology. We can alter our internal chemistry by laughing at a YouTube video, becoming fearful with the latest news on our social media feeds, or get into an angry or exciting Twitter conversation. The possibilities are endless and so our unwanted feelings seem to go away by these distractions. But, then we rely on these distractions – outside of us – so that we can feel better over and over again. And, often we are distracted by the angriest people who shout the loudest on social media, and who don’t make us feel better about ourselves or what is going on in the world.

Occasionally, though we have a breakthrough and experience catharsis, an emotional release, by living someone else’s story. Ultimately, this is why we love a good movie, a book, a meme. We find relief in someone else’s experience because it connects us to them, and also back to ourselves. We mirror each other.

Immersion

When we get immersed in a book, or online in a game, we get a new point of reference, and we use the world in the book or game as starting point, which frees us from ourselves. Normally, we are embodied, that is, we experience the world through our bodies and limited senses and then our brain interprets the experience in light of our past experiences. We pattern match any new experience to a similarly bad or good one that we have had before, and behave in a way that makes this new experience fit its predecessors. We never have a raw experience. But, in virtual reality therapy and in gaming, we can escape our embodiment and adapt to a new world, which potentially opens us up to raw experiences.

Research shows that computer games light up the part of the brain responsible for motivation and learning, and so games are being developed to help people with depression or who have suffered trauma, to train their brains to leave behind their thought patterns and develop new ones. Gamers can literally learn to lose themselves.

In the Gap

In his TED talk, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies that those people who are the most satisfied with their lives regularly engage in activities in which they lose themselves to bring about a state of flow.

In the language of meditation this flow is known as the gap, which is where our unbounded consciousness – the space between our thoughts and ego – lie. It is there where we find our pure potential and infinite possibility. Meditation guru davidji says we have all experienced the gap during those times we have dazzled someone in conversation, that moment when the roller coaster drops us into free fall, or when we lose ourselves in the one we love.

I find meditation incredibly difficult, but gaming less so, and it is with excitement I view the possibilities of technology to teach us how to truly connect to a moment in the right way. And this is why I used The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) at the beginning of the blog. It got mixed reviews on its release but I love this film. For me, it is a gentle celebration of living in the present moment and connecting with who you are.

Walter Mitty lives a grey life as a negatives manager at photo magazine whilst in his head he lives out the most colourful fantasies, until the day his job is threatened and he is forced to engage with life instead. The film’s colour palette saturates, causing Mitty’s grey life to become as colourful as his fantasies because he has opened himself up to the present moment and all it has to offer.

And, this cinematic devices captures perfectly what happens when you tune into your own life in the gap or follow your bliss as mythologist Joseph Campbell put it. Mitty also gets the girl, because instead of just imagining, sometimes hilariously, himself in relationship with her, he learns to stays present in his own life long enough to discover the magic of being all of himself, which is what life coach Martha Beck identifies as the key: Being loved is all about loving yourself. And, being fully present in a moment, paradoxically, is about letting go and losing yourself in it, whether you are holding your phone or not.

I have always believed that technology augments us, and social media reflects us, so it makes perfect sense that the digital landscape has the potential to teach us how to be more ourselves, more human, in every moment of our lives. Perhaps technology doesn’t own us after all.

Designing design: The science of the artificial

astrolabe pic

[Part 1 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

Design is the science of the artificial – Herb Simon

Design is the process of making ideas tangible, in order to improve anything from the task at hand, to changing how a whole government functions. And, because of the impact that design can have on society – just think about how Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web has completely changed our working lives – the design process has been studied for centuries. In Roman times, architect Vitruvius wrote in his De architectura that the human figure is a great example of proportion which in turn inspired Leonardo da Vinci to draw his Vitruvian Man. Design sometimes imitates nature whilst performing the science of the artificial.

Different ways of designing Design

There are several schools of thought when studying design, and sometimes these terms are used interchangeably.

  • Design theory draws on Architectural and Art theory such as the work of Vitruvius and the philosophically-based Aesthetics. Much research is done using mathematics, which is logical given that there many satisfying mathematical designs in nature: The golden ratio, fractals, rule of thirds, and Fibonnaci’s sequence, to name but a few. Sometimes design theory is viewed as the superset of design science and design thinking.
  • Design Science (or design research) studies the best way to understand, teach and perform design, whilst developing tools to support or automate design tasks.
  • Design thinking often focuses on ambiguous problems where success has no defined outcome. This approach is bigger than the design needed to create a deliverable which can be judged as satisfactory, by the client or customer.
  • Design Aesthetics is sometimes used interchangeably with commercial design as a way to produce aesthetically pleasing products in order to have a competitive advantage. Here we see how and why marketing has become inextricably linked to design – just think Apple.

Redesigning design

Designer Don Norman has said that we are all designers, which is partially true, as everywhere we go, we design our spaces in our houses and at our desks. It’s one thing to reorganise your bedroom but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we could all design a complex socio-techical system like the ones, for example, which exist in hospitals where patients, multidisciplinary teams of surgeons, consultants, nurses, and computer systems must all interact, schedule, and record everything from consultations, booking surgery slots, courses of treatment, and follow-up appointments that make up a whole journey which might occur over many years.

It does, however, mean as Architect Paul Grillo says, in Form Function and Design that:

Design is everybody’s business: we live in it, we eat in it, we pray and play in it.

For technology is constantly changing, and so is our society – just think of the need for Simplexity and the Internet of Things in our new Digital Culture, – and so is design, as it expands to support humans in their creativity and communication in an ever more complex world.

And, so I am starting a new blog series where I will look at individual design principles or theories which try to support humans as they create and communicate.

Storytelling in technology: The myth of progress

"Imaginary flying machines" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Imaginary_flying_machines.jpg#/media/File:Imaginary_flying_machines.jpg
Source: Imaginary flying machines

A system is an imaginary machine, invented to connect together in the fancy those different movements and effects which are already in reality performed. – Adam Smith

In his book, Technology’s Storytellers: Reweaving the Human Fabric,  John M. Staudenmaier describes how the Lakota people in North and South Dakota, USA, did not use clocks to measure time. Instead, they used events and experience as a reference point, as they had done since before people measured time in a systematic fashion, that is, before clocks were invented.

However, this different timekeeping system conflicted with the modern world and so society decided that the Lakota people were unreliable and incapable of managing their time. The cognitive dissonance of this belief sadly led to raised levels of depression and dysfunction amongst the Lakota people. Staudenmaier questioned the belief that keeping time according to a clock is a superior way of living, and began to ask why do we always perceive technological invention to be progress.

To answer this question, Staudenmaier analysed all of the articles published in Technology and Culture journal from 1957 to 1980 and decided that storytelling and mythmaking is as prevalent in technology as it is everywhere else.

The myth of progress

Historian, Reinhard Rürup has said that technology is an independent force holding sway over humans, which may contrast with what actually happened. Historiographically speaking (that is the study of the history of history), technology is always a success. Historians interpret history with the presumption that any advance is progress.

There is no documentation or eye-witness accounts from the Iron Age and Stone Age, so historians have created a story to interpret the past and describe the advancement of humans which is taught in schools today. The Iron Age was better than the Stone Age for it was a more advanced age and society because of the tools archaeologists have found.

We don’t really know that for sure though. In fact, we have no idea. Perhaps there were other tools which were far more sophisticated but didn’t endure through time.  As it stands, the tools which have been found are what the story of history is based on. It is possible that history didn’t happen like that at all.

For we assume that when we look back the best tools were adapted and others were discarded. However, this is may not be the case. If we think about recent history and two Sony inventions: Betamax and the mini disc, we can see how these were good products. Betamax was superior in quality to VHS, but VHS was cheaper, as were recordable CDs, and this is what ultimately influenced consumers to choose VHS and CDs – cost not superior technology.

Once society has embraced a specific technology, momentum gains, and society adapts its working systems. Think about it: How many times have we updated and changed our music systems in the last 30 years? Vinyl to Cassette to CD and now mp3. Each time we have lost sound quality, which makes me imagine Stone Age old-timers sitting amongst the Iron Age entrepreneurs reminiscing about bronze tools: None of this Iron tools rubbish, we had great bronze hammers…

Rarely do we question if we are making the right sort of progress.

Humans against techology

In 1811, textile workers known as Luddites began systematic attacks on the expanding factories and mills, and smashed up the wide frames or machines which had began to replaced the skilled workers with unapprenticed factory hands who worked long dangerous hours and produced cheaper cloth.

The attacks continued for two years and were punishable by hanging and troops were sent in to protect the factories. Ultimately, the Luddites failed and the Industrial Revolution caused no end of misery and replaced one way of working with another for financial gain. Human satisfaction was not factored into the equation. Factory owners did not care if their workers were happy or safe, or if the new system suited them, rather like the Lakota people, the mill workers had to put up and shut up in order to survive.

The term Luddite was not really used again until the 1950s when publicists adopted it as a term of insult for people who did not want to adopt new technology, it was ultimately a way of shaming people to conform.

Invention, Innovation, Development

In his quest to identify how progress takes places, Staudenmaier classified technological advances in three ways: invention, innovation and development.

  • Invention is a personal mysterious act challenging what we do and how to do it differently. The success of an invention depends on how persuasive the inventor can be. If the inventor doesn’t have a compelling argument, then the invention goes the way of Betamax.
  • Innovation is always linked with entrepreneurs and is driven by economic factors. And, like in the case of the Lakota people or the Luddites, there is always a tension between tradition and innovation. Businesses will squeeze costs to measure success. From call centres to farmers feeling the squeeze, money talks.
  • Development is a group endeavour, step-by-step and what is feasible rather than what is hoped for. Eventually what was hoped for is forgotten the feasible becomes the success.

In each one of these approaches, failure is rarely dwelt upon. Businesses rewrite their stories constantly to tell everyone about their triumphs, and to persuade everyone that technology makes things better, even when it causes deep unhappiness.

Science Fiction

Science fiction (SF) has been a way for writers to criticise governments, institutions and businesses without getting into trouble for centuries and as such there are recurring themes which reflect our worries about technology such as: humans destroying the world, living in a post-apocalyptic world or dystopia, robots taking over, mind control (or dumbing down).

However, for every story there is about the horrors of technology and it being something humans have invented but can’t control, there equally as many stories about how technology will save us and create a cosmic bliss where we will all live happily ever after. And, there are many areas – medicine, sanitation, electricity, communication – where life is infinitely better than it was, even 20 years ago, albeit not for everyone. In some countries, the above remain scarce and as far out of reach as the moon.

However, as the great SF writer Jules Verne himself said:

While there is life there is hope. I beg to assert…that as long as a man’s heart beats, as long as a man’s flesh quivers, I do not allow that a being gifted with thought and will can allow himself to despair. – Journey to the Centre of the Earth

We just have to make sure when we are recording new stories of technology and advancement, we include everyone, so that we can all attain cosmic bliss, not just the persuasive ones.