If I want my stools checked I'll go to hospital, thank you

'Maybe their next advance will be to create a robot that rubs codliver oil on to your chest'
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The Independent Online

My generation has been swindled. When I was 12, we were promised that by 2001 men would be on Mars and the world would be run by robots. Instead, the most striking change brought about by new technology is people in supermarkets with mobile phones yelling: "They've run out of Weetabix, so shall I get Shredded Wheat instead?"

My generation has been swindled. When I was 12, we were promised that by 2001 men would be on Mars and the world would be run by robots. Instead, the most striking change brought about by new technology is people in supermarkets with mobile phones yelling: "They've run out of Weetabix, so shall I get Shredded Wheat instead?"

Most of the innovations of this time have been slight modifications of earlier inventions, and it's the earlier inventions that would astonish the visitor from the 19th century. Such a time-traveller would be flabbergasted by the telephone. But they wouldn't feel much extra amazement because the mobile version can have a ringing tone of "Livin' la Vida Loca" by Ricky Martin. Nor would they say, "I expected the television. But I never imagined the Yamaha wide-screen model or an interactive zoom option for the cycling on Eurosport."

The exception - the item found in many modern homes that wasn't there 30 years ago - is the home computer. But of all common domestic accessories, it must make the least impact. People yell with glee that their machine can print in 170 fonts, presumably because life has a whole new meaning once they can do a shopping list in Times New Roman.

In fact, the things would be more useful if they didn't have thousands of tricks that they're itching to perform. Because it's bloody infuriating when you're trying to write a letter, accidentally press a wrong key and up comes a list of all the rivers in Argentina.

People scream evangelically that they can do their shopping on the internet, but they can't. They contact the shop via the internet, and then a bloke comes round in a van. Which isn't very different from the 1850s, when you left an order with the grocer, who sent round a lad on a bike. And it probably took less time to get to his local shop than it does to fiddle through a minefield of computer-generated questions and demands for passwords. And there was less chance of the grocer saying, "Sorry, you'll have to come back later. I can't take your order now because my notepad's crashed."

So, many people fall over themselves in misplaced enthusiasm for the "technological revolution", but any sentence that begins, "What they'll be able to do soon" is guaranteed to end in comedy. A feast of such inanities was provided in a dreadful documentary on Channel4 this week, about Japan. "Apparently, what they'll be able to do soon", swooned the presenter, "is make glasses that whisper the name of the person you're speaking to." Which, if it was true - which it obviously isn't - would save the hours of back-breaking labour involved in the old-fashioned method, which is to say, "What's your name?"

As an example of what they can actually do, he gulped in awe at a computerised toilet that checks your stools to see that they're healthy. So, countless millions of hours of research have provided a futuristic medical practice that's exactly the same as one last used in the time of King George III. Maybe their next medical advance will be to create a robot that rubs cod-liver oil on to your chest and covers you in leeches.

Then came the mobile phone that could take photographs. But it was a mobile phone to which you could attach a miniature camera. You might as well put a camera on to a lump of cheese and say that you'd invented a cheese that could take pictures.

The claim that we're living in a period of change faster than ever known is often accompanied by the argument that the social system we live in has been irreversibly redefined as a result. How can the old language of mass organisations, unions and nationalised industries make sense in this new world of information buzzing across continents and robotic Japanese pipes poking through your khazi?

But an honest glance at the world of 2001 shows that, just as the inventions that dominate our lives are those of the early part of the 20th century, the same is true of our social system. Around the world, more people work in factories now than ever before - 113 million, compared with 88 million in 1950. Millions of people will vote Labour this year, even New Labour, because they come from a Labour-voting background instilled by their grandparents' generation. Even the football clubs we support won their allegiances back then, whereas attempts to create new loyalties stumble into Wimbledon-like frustration. Japan, for all its gizmos, is laying off workers who make them because of the 10th year of recession. Maybe the unemployed don't mind because they get a computerised giro by e-mail.

And the time-traveller probably wouldn't go back to the 19th century shouting, "It's unbelievable how different politics is from now. Because in the year 2001, when a businessman wants to ensure friendly relations with the governing party by sending it pots of money, he can do it by credit transfer, without ever having to go to the bank. I tell you, it's a different world."

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