Technology that inspires awe, wonder... and doubt

The CES techno fair was full of eye-catching gadgetry, but we of the 'Tomorrow's World' generation are not convinced
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Transported to the 2015 International CES techno fair in Las Vegas – a rather tame description for the eye-catching gadgetry on display last week – the BBC's technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, was clearly in seventh heaven.

We first glimpsed him caught up in a scrum of eager fans gathered around a piece of electronic equipment that allows you to water your plants while you are away on holiday. He could then be found – superfluously – at the wheel of a car that drove itself along a highway and parked itself in a car park, although there did seem to be a moment or two when the presence of a driver was needed to issue commands which the system wasn't yet capable of processing under its own steam.

Next, Rory proceeded to a site some miles out of town where the hugely excited boss of a drone manufacturing company filled him in on the merits of what looked like a motorised vulture that swooped in and out of view every so often but whose precise value to society seemed, rather like the drone itself, to hang in the air above the viewer's head. Other enticements, not covered by Mr Cellan-Jones but available for inspection on the CES's impossibly grandiloquent website, included 3D printed furniture, floating speakers and the wi-fi-enabled dog bowl which, in the words of Live Science's correspondent "turns a totally analogue, everyday activity into a digital process", allowing you to tap your smartphone and ensure that Rover gets the correct amount of Pedigree Chum on the spot.

Then, of course, there were the innovations thought to be pending in the field of entertainment, and in particular an invite to the "Era of Personal Entertainment Super Session" whose participants could expect to learn that the old-fashioned "linear episodic" varieties of film and television no longer cut it, and that today's fans want to interact with their favourite actors and performers "on their own terms".

Whatever your own opinion of bits of electronic rubbish – and, dear me, mine seems to have slipped out of the sack already – the whole affair was both hugely entertaining and faintly nostalgic, for the thing it most reminded me of – apart from the items served up every year in Private Eye's "Gnomemart" Christmas catalogue spoof – was the old BBC1 series from the late 1970s, Tomorrow's World, watched by every teenager not because they had any interest in the scientific future but because it preceded Top of the Pops.

To the techno-enthusiasts, wandering saucer-eyed through the Las Vegas halls, and flocking wherever a clipboard-wielding salesman beckoned, all this was a vision of paradise – that bright, shiny horizon which, once crossed, would lead you into a universe where, at one extreme, you could probably conduct a war from the comfort of your sitting room and, at the other, adjust the temperature of your hamster's cage while trekking through Nepal. To the middle-aged man, born into a world where technology advanced at only a fraction of the rate of its ever-escalating modern-day surge, the only honest response seems to be a certain amount – well no, a very large amount – of polite scepticism.

40-Sensors-AP.jpg’s smart sensors, called Mother and Motion Cookies (AP)

It is not just that most techno-prophecy turns out to be, at worst, plain wrong and, at best, significantly askew from future reality (the great thing about Tomorrow's World, memory insists, was that hardly any of the speculations brought to its impressionable audience actually happened); it is, rather, that, whether inspected from the angle of utility or even morality, the thing itself seems fatally flawed. Naturally, CES 2015 offered several innovations that seemed designed to improve various aspects of human existence. There was, for example, an "Ekso Suit", manufactured by a company called Ekso Bionic, which enabled a total paraplegic to get up and walk, not to mention "technology and diversity" sessions and something called a real-sense techno jacket which provides physical cues for the visually impaired.

At the same time, vast numbers of the items on display looked as if they were expressly calculated to fulfil what might be called the first great desideratum of gadgetry – to meet a need which may not actually exist in the first place. What, to particularise, is the point of floating speakers? Or 3D printed furniture? Why bother at all, other than with the aim of getting people to pay money for them? The psychology of gadget-use is one of the great unexplored areas of behavioural science, involving as it does the forging of a kind of ghostly compact between inventor and buyer, predicated on the promise of instant, if low-level, aesthetic gratification – the purchaser's delight as the bagel-slicer does its work – the promise of convenience (Rover's dog bowl filling up when you happen to be elsewhere) and the creation of a knowledgeable and necessarily elite techno-community with its own delicious protocols and information silos.

Above all, there is the welcome thought of continuity and incremental advance. The modern techno-ferment, it might be argued, is a classic example of what used to be called the Whig view of history, for like that now sadly discredited journey to the ideal form of government, it never stops its relentless march, replaces one hi-tech gizmo with another as soon as the first one has saturated the market, and has the additional advantage of supposedly being for the common good. There is something well-nigh virtuous about a gadget that saves you time, or increases your options, or allows you to choose from 3,000 CD tracks instead of 2,500 – a carefully cultivated sheen of humanistic glory that has the additional advantage of diverting attention from quite how insidious, not to say immoral, most technological advances are in practice.

For the techno-gadget, as even its enthusiasts now generally concede, is usually there to build up information – to persuade its user to reveal more of themselves, to assemble data which may, in certain circumstances, be sold on to other people or even sold back to the person responsible for producing it. The carefully assembled profile of our likes and dislikes, which in the past was the result of a deliberate enquiry into personal taste, is being left to machines, with practical consequences that range from the mildly patronising ("Enjoyed X's book? Then you might like these") to the downright sinister. If, as the 21st century progresses, it becomes steadily more difficult to act like a human being – that is, to preserve the various checks and balances which keep our lives on an even keel – then technology will probably be the culprit.

As for some of the other moral consequences of this technological free-for-all, a puritan would probably argue that, beyond a certain level, the utilitarian benefits of the time or labour-saving device are probably cancelled out by their debilitating effect on your soul, and that it is probably better for you to make the effort to feed your dog yourself or remember the date of your partner's birthday rather than leave it to your smartphone.

And then there is that final effect of an exposition such as CES 2015 – not something, to be fair, that can be blamed on the organisers – which is to seduce us into believing that we are all interested in science. In fact, the average modern citizen is generally left cold by the way in which the universe works, unless its complexities can be brought to him, or her, by a Stephen Hawking or a Brian Cox. On the other hand, advance warning of a new gadget – a way of switching on the central heating from the car, watching TV on your engagement ring – is usually enough to grip us all by the collective throat.