Article - Modern Technology and Our Society

I don’t know how many readers of this column have had the unpleasant experience of dropping their mobile phone on a hard surface. Those who have, will have some feeling for the multiple cracks that appeared in the all-important glass front of my phone when it slipped out of my fingers recently. 

The story has a happy if somewhat expensive ending. I found a shop that quickly and efficiently replaced the glass. 

But the story has a sequel. The repair shop also fitted a plastic screen saver (at some further expense) - and this protective covering saved the new glass from destruction when, with extraordinary clumsiness, I managed to let the phone slip out of my hand onto the street again. At this point, I announced triumphantly to my daughter (who is not very complimentary about my technical skills) that I knew exactly where to purchase a new screen saver. However, when I mentioned the price, she snorted with derision and pointed me to an internet site where I could obtain a new screen saver - delivered free to my door - for a mere fraction of what I had paid at the shop in question. 

This little parable tells us a good deal about the nature of change in our economy and society. 

Rather tritely it reminds us to the extent of which we all now depend on these electronic devices and on the internet to which they give us access. But, more interestingly, it tells us something about what a powerful new technology does and doesn’t do. The existence of the repair shop illustrates how - contrary to the frequently expressed fears of new technology destroying jobs - new technologies can in fact create whole new streams of entrepreneurial activity - in effect heralding the return of the local craftsmen in a new form. But the story also illustrates the futility of attempts to compete with the economies of scale that can be generated by employing new technologies to perform functions like the retailing of simple commodities. 

I think the message is that preserving the charm of the small and the old fashioned depends on understanding when the charming and old fashioned is actually modern and efficient. 

This is an important point to bear in mind when it comes to preserving local, rural services. Efforts to preserve in aspic things that local people don’t any longer want to use, are doomed to failure. But there is a bright future for things that are charming, local, small in scale and capable of providing people with things they actually need and want in a modern world that is inevitably shaped by global technologies. 

We don’t have to choose between the global and the local or hi tech and charm. We can have both if we are imaginative enough to spot what is best done one way and what is best done another way.