Technology for technology’s sake

Technology, far from being our slave, has become our master.

Ahead of his recent visit to the US Prince Charles trotted out the somewhat tired, but occasionally persuasive argument that technology, far from being our slave, has become our master.

The Prince is not alone. Many claim that the unchecked development of technology for technology’s sake is one of the most pernicious influences of our age. With large swathes of our population hopelessly addicted to personal devices that were once designed to free up time, it’s often tempting to agree.

But it’s perhaps unwise to grasp this thorny argument too enthusiastically. If every kernel of a technological idea was subjected to a ‘do we or don’t we need it?’ test at its embryonic stage, many advances that have made our lives fuller, safer and healthier wouldn’t be with us today.

Development of technology, like writing, painting or musical composition, is, at heart, a heavily creative process — and while The Engineer is the first to applaud well-targeted, commercially minded R&D, it’s important that an instant pay-off isn’t the only consideration.

Researchers and developers must be given space to occupy the grey area inhabited by chance discoveries and inspired epiphanies.

Smart homes have often felt the sharp end of the techno-cynic’s tongue. But the results of the latest trials suggest that while they were once viewed as an expensive plaything for the very rich, many aspects of smart home technology are becoming attractive to normal people. And technologies such as energy consumption monitoring have wider environmental benefits as well as helping homeowners shave money off their energy bills.

But while the wonders of satellite TV and broadband internet access mean that it’s no longer impossible to imagine living in a hi-tech home, it takes a bigger leap of imagination to envisage yourself in the Toyota personal transporter car. It has been tried before — as if anyone needs to be reminded of the C5 — and it didn’t catch on.

Yet every successive attempt to catch the popular imagination with personal transporters moves the idea forward a little. Plus, recent developments have more immediate and tangible spin-off potential.

So, while it’s highly unlikely that Toyota’s i-swing will ever be seen pootling down

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, perhaps some of the technology that the car maker’s unfettered dreamers thought up will. The gyroscopic balancing and steering mechanisms and the AI system that learns your driving habits offer real hope for disabled people yearning for the open road.

Returning to the bigger picture, days after Prince Charles’ comments, the media was awash with stories outlining the fact that our only potential saviour from impending environmental Armageddon is, you’ve guessed it: technology. Another persuasive argument.

The truth of the matter is that technology is neither the problem nor the solution, it cannot be blamed for what we do with it. It is the way we actively choose to apply it that matters.

Jon Excell, Features Editor