Attending a relative’s 95th birthday celebration recently I heard a story of all the changes this lady had seen in her life. As a child she saw the Great Depression change her comfortable house into a smaller one. As a teenager she saw Bondi Beach closed and barb wired and heard the thud of Japanese mini subs being destroyed in Sydney Harbour.
She learned to drive in a ‘38 Chevy three on the tree and remembers the iceman before refrigeration. Postmen would come on bicycle and soft drinks on the Tristrams truck. Milk on the doorstep homogenised or pasteurised, bread van, butchers wooden stump and washing done in a Copper.
Since then the rise of the machines in her life has included the washing machine, fridge, automatic gear box, supermarket registers, electric oven, kettle, fry pan, television, colour television and eventually microwave. All this alongside typewriters, electric typewriters then computers and the internet. Email replaced regular mail, Facebook and newspapers became the way we communicate and read online.
Electric cars, global air travel, space missions and the atomic age all happened in her lifetime. The scale of change is huge and her ability to continuously adapt has been challenged particularly of late. What do you do if you like the way things were and they aren’t available anymore? Bit of bad luck eh?
Reflecting on all that change we can see good and bad as advances in science and medicine prolong human life but governments struggle to pay for services for an aging population with less taxpayers in the workforce. The workforce itself needs to be smaller as machines become bank tellers and shop check out attendants.
How will this affect the employment prospects of our young people, will they need to work if machines do everything, how will they live and pay their bills? A universal wage has been discussed in Scandinavia but who will pay the tax to allow for this? Some economists are suggesting we just keep printing money to pay ourselves via the government, have they forgotten the lessons of the past with hyperinflation?
Human kind should plan for the unintended consequences of the use of machines in place of humans and other technological advances beyond the profits to be made when they are new. Face to face communication is being replaced by text messages and home offices are reducing communication in the workplace. How will we avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and be collaborative and inventive together using these new tools?
Our 95 year old friend won’t have to worry about this but her descendants will. That generation has set us up as a country that is the envy of the world and it’s up to us to protect it and prevent it from getting away from us. City planners take a global view of how a building fits into the aesthetic of a city so it remains pleasant to live in, perhaps we need a planner to assess the costs and benefits of technology beyond the bottom line of the inventor.
With the state election only weeks away perhaps we should be asking our candidates about how they are planning for our future under the rise of the machines. The US National Academy of Engineering, by expert vote, established the following ranking of the most important technological developments of the 20th century:
Water supply and Distribution
Radio and Television
Air Conditioning and Refrigeration
Petroleum and Petrochemical technologies
Laser and Fiber Optics