Monday 16 December 2013

The difference engine - how far have attitudes to technology come?

In the west, the technology we now work with every day is undeniably advanced. We have made a computer of the world - our satellites surround and comfort us when we’re lost. We wear the internet, invisibly. It sits in our pockets making us cocooned-beacons and so long as we have electric, we have a connection and are aided by that status. The technology is incredible, though the popular attitudes around it...less so. We haven’t quite caught up to that level. It’s my belief that many elements of attitudes in the UK are still Victorian. Here’s why.


Fair and representative as they are, even the BBC sometimes struggle against the nature of the globalized world: they recently featured an article titled Should we fear the rise of Huawei? This echoes the Victorian attitudes, which in The Year of The Great Stink, 1858, were typified in the title of an April newspaper column China’s Power is on the Rise. Though ‘the times change but people stay the same’, that’s not what observational, BBC attitudes should do.

Any resurgent sense of nationalism, in any country of the 21st Century world let alone the UK, is out of step with the nature of the internet. We are a connected world where messages and moments transcend’d think, but not so in politics - take the case of Theresa May’s recent failed attempt to forcefully evict Ifa Muaza from the UK by plane, which cost the UK an estimated £100,000. Unfortunately, not all the Victorian similarities are so harmless, The British Empire's systematic deletion of colonial records on its exit and he Conservative Party's recent Orwellian deletion of websites featuring their speech promises are too, a little close for comfort.

There are also similarities to the Victorian era in the ways in which we’re developing technologies: at the moment there are many who scratch at the edges of change and develop uses that seem to want to replace the physical - the stress sensing bra is just one of these. Though I’m sure its uses as part of the Internet of Things may prove interesting and quirky, the question must always be raised, can we do this with our bodies alone? Shouldn’t we conserve energy and listen to our bodies? The Victorians also thought we had no common sense and couldn’t respond well enough either, so much so they invented a “Ladies’ Bicycle protector” which to be “the ideal bicycle for ladies’ use” was lighter, having a guard to protect dresses from mud, and a sviwelling seat to remove the difficulty of mounting a bike in a long skirt.

Some of us may be chomping at the bit to buy Cute Circuit clothing - the clothes that can do intricate technological things - but the Victorians were too, they wanted ‘Electric Jewellery’ that would light up.

In 1858, the year my debut novel Purefinder is set, photography was an emerging technology. Chapter 5 covers just a few of the special effects related to photography that the Victorians were fascinated by, allowing for scientific documentation, as memento moris, and, of course, its emerging use as a pornographic tool of the trade. While Purefinder is set in Victorian times, its story follows a protagonist facing very contemporary problems: inequality, corruption, discrimination and persecution. While our technologies are new, we should never lose sight of the age old social, political and economic problems they may or may not be helping to solve.

Ben Gwalchmai’s debut novel set in 1858 London, Purefinder, is out now, and available from the Imperica shop.

Ben is an actor, maker, writer, and worker.

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