Modern Life is Rubbish

The 1993 film Demolition Man told us that, in the future, people would be listening to adverts for entertainment. I'm not a big fan of science fiction, so I dismissed this prediction as far-fetched nonsense.

Twenty three years later, when my daughter was in year 5, I decided to play her some of the singles that I'd bought when I was in year 5. The 80s had just started back in 1978, and while I was spinning those early Gary Numan singles I started to wonder how it is that while we were obsessed with pop music at that age, my daughter and her friends never mention it. She's now at secondary school and still never mentions it, and, whereas we waited for the new chart to be revealed every Tuesday lunchtime, I suspect that most of my teenage students would struggle to name me a number one single from the last year.

So what's happened? It's a fairly recent thing. When I was doing my first teaching practice, back in 1997, I wondered why all of the students were walking the corridors singing "On My Radio" by The Selecter. I had yet to hear Aqua's "Barbie Girl", but they all knew it. The deputy head told us, as the PGCE students were welcomed to the school, that it was "every teacher's duty to watch Top of the Pops."

I still have the first single I bought, and I clearly remember going to buy it – it was 70p and I bought it from the Midland Educational shop in Sutton Coldfield. That made me start to wonder whether technology is the thing that's changed. Saving up the money and going into town to buy a 7" single was quite an occasion for an eight-year old, and even now I get a sense of occasion as I place the record on the turntable. How many people remember the first video they watched on YouTube, or the first song they streamed from Spotify?

And while interest in music has declined, Christmas adverts for Sainsbury's and John Lewis currently each have more than 30 million views on YouTube. Sandra Bullock was right.

It’s not just the way that we listen to music that has changed, either - it’s the way that it’s recorded and reported. Having already ruined the charts by adding streaming data, the Official Charts Company decided that YouTube views will also be included.

When we teach students about the impact of ICT, we usually think about the workplace, the marketplace or the environment, but what about the impact on leisure time and hobbies? Not only do I think that streaming is killing my love of music, but I'm also a keen amateur photographer and I'm not entirely happy about the impact of technology on photography, either.

Digital photography does have many benefits – you don’t have to wait until you’ve taken 24 or 36 photos and then wait a fortnight for Bonus Print to send them back before you can look at your pictures, for example. And you can take as many as you like and delete the ones that don’t work. On the other hand, it’s also fundamentally changed the nature of photography. When I attend my local photographic club, or look at college courses or books, it seems that the most important aspect of photography is being able to use Lightroom or Photoshop to correct or improve photos that people didn’t take the time to compose or expose properly in the first place.

Video is similar. When I bought my video camera I looked for a video course – I thought it would be good to know a bit more about long-shots, close-ups, establishing shots, L-cuts and J-cuts, etc. All I could find locally were books and courses on using software such as Adobe Premiere.

As a Computing teacher, I often feel that people expect me to behave in a certain way; they expect me to have the latest gadgets and to get excited by the potential of new developments such as the "internet of things", but is there a danger in mindlessly promoting the latest technology? Is it always an improvement over what came before?

When describing the benefit of a particular piece of technology, we always tell students to avoid vague statements about cost and ease-of-use, but for home and leisure activities we're usually sold things in terms of convenience.

Convenience for who, though? There used to be a common expression, “all mod cons”, which was an abbreviation of “all modern conveniences”, meaning things fitted in modern houses to make life easy or more comfortable.

Are devices such as iPods and Kindles more benefit to us, or to Apple and Amazon? I note that, despite there being no manufacturing, storage or delivery costs, it's still often cheaper to buy the CD of an album than to download it in a compressed format at lower quality – and downloading an uncompressed FLAC copy can cost nearly twice as much. Apple dropped the headphone socket from iPhones to make them a fraction thinner, but I’d find it more convenient to be able to use my headphones.

Digital broadcasting might give us more choice on our radios and televisions, but it’s of more benefit to the broadcasters as signal strengths are lower and several programmes can be multiplexed together on the same channel, saving power and bandwidth. It also means greater compression and lower quality as broadcasters try to squeeze in more content.

It also turns out that we quite like a bit of inconvenience – vinyl sales are at a twenty-year high, mechanical watches are still fashionable, people like writing with fountain pens, and who doesn't love a steam train? Inconvenience can be quite hard to come by, though – BMW engineers had to hack the cars' safety systems on the set of the last James Bond film to allow them to drift and perform other stunts that traction control, etc., would normally prevent.

There are plenty of examples of things that are not really an improvement over what came before. Contentious sound quality aside, DAB lacks the traffic announcements of FM with RDS, or the ability to search on programme type, and robots can't flip burgers. Some schools use a CMS, such as Joomla or WordPress, to teach students to create web-pages without them learning anything about HTML.

There are also applications of technology that create in us a form of learned helplessness. People navigate by GPS and no longer look where they're going, computers calculate scores when playing darts or bowling, removing the need to mental arithmetic, and we now even need traffic lights in the floor, apparently, so we don't need to look up from our smartphones to avoid getting run over. We can’t even be trusted to turn off the engine when we stop our cars.

Social media make us depressed, technology is making us less knowledgeable and less-focussed, and our houses and appliances are spying on us. Toddlers can use iPads, but they can’t hold a pencil.

Then there's planned obsolescence and "sunsetting". Digital televisions and set-top boxes have stopped working, Nest has disabled products costing hundreds of pounds, Skype stopped working on televisions, and Spotify dropped support for my network music player with a few days’ notice, despite it having a cult following. Support for mobile devices also tends to be time-limited – I’m typing this on a six-year old PC that I use for work on a daily basis, but my five-year old Android tablet is pretty-much unusable; not because there’s anything wrong with the hardware, but because the manufacturer no longer offers operating system updates that are required to run the apps.

I've had my car for ten years, and the time has come to think about a replacement. It’s a major purchase and I want something that might last me another ten years, but I’m concerned about longevity. Lots of modern cars have systems that run Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, and have computer-controlled “entertainment systems” that mean it takes 30 seconds to turn on the radio. Even someone who works in the car industry couldn’t reassure me that all of this technology would still be working in five years.

Now before you start thinking that I’ve turned into a grumpy old man… I know that there are many positive aspects to the use of technology, but we hear about those too often. Even the news channels tell us about the latest Apple products.

When I first started teaching, back in the 90s, we never taught any presentation skills, but did more word processing. I used to point out that the use of ICT needed to be appropriate – we wouldn’t turn on the computer, load Windows, start Word, turn on the printer, load paper, type some text and print it if we just wanted to leave a note for the milkman or to let the family know that we’d popped out to the shops.

In PSHE lessons we teach students not to eat too much sugar or fat, but I often think that we should also teach students to be more discerning in their consumption of information - schools should give students a copy of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, rather than a Gideon New Testament. I'd like to think that we can teach students to resist being wowed by new technology and ask themselves if the latest gadget is really of benefit to them, or whether it’s merely a solution in search of problem, just a gimmick or a cynical marketing tool.

This blog was originally written for the TES Subject Genius series in June 2018.