Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Is Technology Taking Us Back to a Victorian Lifestyle?

Imagine making a telephone call in the early 20th century:  you'd just tell the operator the name of the person you wanted to reach, and the operator would connect you. This all changed with the development of automatic switching. It was progress of a sort -- no need to go through a human operator. Instead, you had to memorize a host of phone numbers and dial up (or later, punch in) the number you wanted. But now smart phones have taken us full circle. Just like our forebears, you can simply speak the name of the person you want to talk to (or, at worst, pull up a name on your screen), and the phone does the rest. Telephone numbers (and the need to remember them) are going the way of the buggy whip.

Life among the upper class, and even the middle class, before the 1920s was very labor-intensive (i.e., labor-intensive for other people!) Think Downton Abbey. Labor-saving devices eliminated the need for a host of servants, but they never quite reached the same level of service. (What?? I have to wash my own clothes? And drive my own car?) But we seem to be reentering the Victorian era of service, with computers/robots taking the place of servants. The next place where this will have a big impact is driverless automobiles -- soon each of us will have a personal chauffeur. Now if I could just get my Roomba to bring me coffee in the morning... This idea lurks around the edges of a lot of steampunk novels, and it was explored (sort of) in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age.

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