Technological advance—while always to be welcomed—does not inevitably lead to a higher quality of life for all people. All too often, instead of being used to reduce tedious work and increase the time available for leisure and creativity, new innovations are used to increase unemployment and the misery which goes with it. The Luddites and others were, at least, able to see this and create a movements against it. Over the last few decades, however, there have arisen a series of related technological advances, which have had a dramatically detrimental effect—but have been enthusiastically welcomed by their victims.
Modern communications technology—including email, mobile telephones, the internet, satellite television—have, over a very short span of time, revolutionized the way we communicate. It is now possible for people to communicate through sound, still or moving images, and written text almost instantaneously no matter where they are. This would have seemed like science fiction not that long ago. It is true there have been benefits. However, for the vast majority of people a number of practical consequences are worth noting.
The existence of email has precipitated a huge increase in non-productive mind-numbing drudgery. A typical office worker can spend around two or three hours each day just reading and responding to emails. Because emails are easy to send, people send lots of them. When they are received people feel obliged to reply to them. It would make little difference if the vast majority were not sent at all. Somebody sends you a text. You reply. Then comes back another, “thanks”, so you have to respond with “no problem”—a pattern repeated for many, several times a day, day after day. Easy instantaneous communication has produced a vast amount of completely pointless communication.
Because emails can be sent or received from almost anywhere, people often spend time dealing with correspondence outside of working hours. Initially this may well have been to ease the burden at work. However, in many industries, this has become the norm. So people are expected, in effect, to do what could be several hours overtime per day without pay.
The internet has produced a whole series of “social networking sites” on which people fritter away many hours confusing fantasy with reality. It is not uncommon for people to think of social-network based online friends as real friends. Support or opposition to a political action or viewpoint is reduced to clicking a “like” button. Interaction with the real world is, in fact, in decline. Witness the number of people on any crowded bus, plugged into their ipods, oblivious to the world around them. As virtual communication has increased, real world communication has declined.
With anybody and everybody being able to video anything and everything, upload it onto the internet, and have it seen around the world, we are constantly bombarded with low quality images and shoddy footage. This has become the norm for most of what we view. People are more and more happy to accept low quality. The process of desensitization of taste—which began with the introduction of VHS video and growth in movie rental shops, causing a shift from going to the cinema to experience the piece as the film-maker intended, to watching it on a small screen while eating pizza and dealing with all their other distractions—has now got to the stage where people prefer to watch it on their mobile phones.
The whole thrust of modern communication technology has been towards a less collective, more individual atomized form of existence. In general, “surfing the net” is a solitary activity. Social networking online is something you do alone. Plugging yourself into your ipod essentially encloses you in your own tiny individual world. The ability to work from home via modern information technology—although more convenient in some senses—has the effect of isolating you from other people (as well as allowing your home to be used as a rent-free office, but that is, arguably, another issue). In a cinema, you watch a movie with dozens (or sometimes hundreds) of others. A VHS video is watched in a living room with a small group of family or friends. A movie on your mobile phone is watched alone.
Modern communication technology has exacerbated the trend—which probably arose as a result of the mass culture industry during the twentieth century—for people progressively to associate with one another less. Less people join voluntary associations, political parties, clubs, and groups than they did in the past. People lead more fragmented, less social, lives. How we should respond to this, I have no idea. Nevertheless, this is a profound social development which communists must take account of, in developing strategies for socialist advance in the twenty-first century.