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« The Blank Paper | Main | Pictures across the curriculum: After the tourists have gone »

The effects of technology on lifestyle, and techno-romanticsm

Back to the future?This article was originally published on 2 October 2009. However, the TV series to which it refers is being aired again, starting on 6th March. So while the reference to "last night" in the first paragraph is no longer accurate, the rest of it, including the link, is.

I watched an interesting TV programme last night. Called Electric Dreams, the programme followed the fortunes of a family whose home had been transported back in time to the 1970s. Each day brought a new year, and the technology that went with it.

Some insightful connections were made. For example, as the freezer began to make its way into people’s homes, it became feasible to do a weekly shop rather than a daily one. That, in turn, freed women (mainly) up to do more things besides housework.

I think a programme like this can be useful to show to youngsters for two reasons. Firstly, to help them perceive that there is a history behind the devices that they take for granted today. I remember one young lady being incredulous when she realised, from something I said, that there had been a time before video players! I don’t know why I think this is important, I just do.

Secondly, it’s useful to be able to explore the possible connections between technological innovation and lifestyle, as with the freezer example above. Most ICT courses include a section on the impact of technology on society, so this would not be time wasted.

Of course, and this is another avenue worth looking at, technological innovation is, at first, enjoyed only by the few. With freezers and colour televisions costing the equivalent of several weeks’ earnings, they could not be bought by everyone when they first appeared in the shops. Is this still the case now? I think it probably is, but my perception is that the time it takes for the price to fall is much shorter than it used to be.

One of the things I do find frustrating about such programmes, although this one was refreshingly honest, is the prevalence of what might be called ‘techno-romanticsm’. What, I ask myself, was so great about not being able to start my car on a cold winter’s morning? What was so wonderful about cassette-driven computers that took ages to be ready? The past may have been OK when we were living in it, but who would wish to go back there?

The lady of the house thought that it would be nice to get back to a time when families spent more time with each other, before technology was so ubiquitous. Am I missing something, or is she saying that the technology, not she or her husband, dictates what happens in their own home? That is like my saying I long for the time when there were only 5 TV channels to watch, because then I would spend more time with my wife. The solution is simple: switch the TV off and sit and read or talk!

I found it interesting that one of their children (none of whom had ever used a record player before) liked the idea of having a vinyl album because it was tangible, unlike music downloads. I also found it interesting, returning to the theme of how technology influences lifestyle, to reflect that whereas thirty years ago sending a child to their room was seen as a punishment, because there was nothing to do there and they would be incommunicado, now it would be seen as a reward!

As far as teaching was concerned, I enjoyed pushing the boat out with technology to see how it might be used in learning and teaching (and still do). But having to book a computer room at the Institute of Education for my evening class students back in 1982, or having to post my students’ decisions and then wait a week for the computer results may have been fine at the time, because we knew no better. But who in their right mind would look back on all that as some kind of golden age?

The past may be interesting, even fascinating, but the best thing about it, as far as I’m concerned, is that it is the past!

You can see the programme I've referred to, for a limited period of time, by following the TV link on the Electric Dreams website. The 1980s are next.

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