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The problem with being left to our own devices

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Does anyone still go on a Sunday drive? The 1970s, I suppose, was the last time it was commonly done. People would set out with no set purpose or aim, heading up the coast. They'd take at look at a water-view block, on sale for $5000, label the price "ridiculous", then motor back to town.

The car itself was so engrossing, so interesting, so innately sexy, that time spent in its company required no further reward.

To most of us, that now seems nutty. The point is to get somewhere.

Young people in particular have fallen out of love with the car. They would rather travel on public transport and check their iPhone, the item that's replaced the car as an expression of freedom and adulthood.

There's a battle being waged over those digital devices. Various new books - three are reviewed in The New York Times this week - argue the apocalypse is upon us: parents, themselves distracted by their devices, have allowed a generation of young people to rewire their own brains.

This, of course, brings hoots of derision from those who argue that humanity has always embraced new technology and become richer and wiser for it. It's Luddites vs Technophiles. And, I confess, I'm partial to the Luddites.


The history of the car - and of that Sunday drive - might be a good place to start.

When cars came on the scene there was great anxiety. The technology was seen as alarming and dangerous; drivers were required to hire a man to walk ahead of the vehicle waving a red flag.

In retrospect this seems absurd, yet this was followed by a period that, to our eyes, now appears equally absurd: a time in which the new technology was embraced with such abandon, with such uncritical glee, that it was allowed to remake the world in its own image.

Cars were fun and liberating - that's why we fell for them with such a swoon - yet they also poisoned our lungs, chewed up our countryside and brought foreign wars to secure fuel.

We were unwilling to put any limit on a device so intriguing, so liberating. Adding a seatbelt was a battle that took years. Lead was left in the petrol because the engine seemed to like it. And Ralph Nader - who thought it would be better if cars stopped bursting into flames - was considered a radical.

Most of us - OK, Jeremy Clarkson excepted - look back at that period with bewilderment. We now believe the car should be tamed so it suits our wider needs: seatbelts, emission limits, a better balance between spending on road and rail.

No sensible person believes we can take a hammer to all new technology.

Which brings us back to those digital devices. We are midway, it seems to me, along a road we have already travelled. As with the car, we started with outright anxiety - the red-flag period - then entered a period in which the technology became dominant, as if it were setting its own rules.

This, for many households, is where we are now. Kids and adults sit, dotted around the house, all using different devices, skipping from app to app, for hours at a time. This is not done to get anywhere, to achieve anything; it's for the pleasure of time spent with the device. Remember that Sunday drive?

The spaghetti junctions of LA still represent the worst of the motor car and its unfettered dominance. Will the rewired spaghetti of our brains come to represent a similar period of uncritical embrace?

No sensible person believes we can take a hammer to all new technology, Luddite-style. But if you read the story of King Ludd himself - stirringly told in E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class - Ludd doesn't deserve all the sniggering. He was on to something. True, you couldn't eradicate those mechanised looms, but they could be bent to better suit human needs.

That process took a couple of centuries to achieve and it's still to happen in places such as Bangladesh. It was a movement of human push-back involving writers, politicians and labour-movement activists. They knew the technology could not be allowed to remake the world, unfettered, driven only by the commerical interests of its owners.

Maybe we now need some push-back of our own - a Dickens of the digital age, a Ruskin of the router. If nothing else, someone needs to say the obvious: if you wanted to produce a machine for creating social anxiety, particularly in teenagers, you'd probably come up with something that looked exactly like Facebook.

When parents demand children put down their devices, or when they make a deal with themselves to take a digital holiday, they are not being Luddites. They are merely getting ahead of an inevitable wave - one in which we will all understand that this technology, like all those that preceded it, must be bent to our needs.

Twitter: @rglover702

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