‘You can tell a lot about a country from its vices,’ begins Jenny McCartney’s opinion piece in the latest Sunday Times, on the decline of Britain’s traditional poisons – alcohol and cigarettes – and their replacement by, among other things, remorselessly creeping technology. (Creeping so remorselessly, indeed, that no less an authority than Bill Gates has now suggested robots could pay tax.)
Yet, as McCartney points out, artificial intelligence (AI), the crowing achievement of man, meant to liberate us from servitude and usher in an era of ease and comfort, has instead taken on the role of the vices we are supposedly leaving behind. The crutch of chemicals in liquid, powder and smoke forms is out; tech-dependence has arrived.
For while spending on drink and fags is at a new low, essential gadgets and apps are multiplying in quantity – more mobile phones are now sold annually than toothbrushes – and price. This, McCartney says, is the communication revolution, and it has come at a cost.
Heightened stress, as highlighted last week in the Times, is exacerbated by the ease with which it is possible to bring work home via mobile technology. Loneliness is compounded by the desire for constant contact, and depression can ensue when not enough is forthcoming. Technology was meant to be the servant, but it is now, for so many, the master.
While boozing and smoking were not ideal, at least they greased the uptight, stiff gears of an uptight and stiff nation, making social interaction all the easier. Sure, many might say, some became dependent on them to facilitate social interaction, but technology does the opposite. It prevents socialising, giving people a false sense of community, often with people they need never meet in person.
When people went to the pub before, they would have a few drinks, a smoke, and could talk and laugh away their ills. Now, even when people meet, they spend so much time glued to their screens they are barely aware of what transpires around them; lives may be prolonged by steps to cut out alcohol and tobacco, but by and large, people are living less.
A pint of beer can’t think for you. A cigarette won’t pre-empt you with a clever algorithm, and – for all we may think with our stomachs – a greasy burger won’t make the choice between staying in and going out on your behalf. Technology, with unintentional cruelty, can do these things. True – at its best – it can be applied to solving the problems of humanity. But unlike the old ‘vices’, it can’t make us more human.