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Posted by Philip Patston on 3 April 2008, 3:25 pm in

The slow but necessary evolution of social technology

While queuing for nearly half an hour this morning to buy tickets for Bodyworlds at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, I was looking at an old Linotype machine on display. While musing that I'd expect an institution specialising in science and industry to have devised a more efficient way of queuing for and buying tickets than traipsing through a temporary, prefabricated building hardly wide enough to allow two people to pass each other, I was also contemplating the technological advancement of humanity.

It seems incredible that, in just a hundred years or so, the industry of typesetting and printing, which used to involve such cumbersome machinery, has come to be executed with such speed, accuracy and quality within the virtually unseen mechanisms of laptops and desktop printers. In fact, the physical production function is now almost redundant. This blog, its style and distribution are evidence of the linotype of the future.

Were those ten decades a waste of time? Could we have skipped the labour- and resource-intensive age of paper printing, saved a lot of money, steel, ink, and trees, and brought the technological environment of electronic printing forward a generation or two? How would that have impacted on the environment, the economy, politics even? Would the world be a better place? Would we have missed out on anything had the literature of the past not been mass-produced on the page but on the screen instead? Could it have been? Didn't anyone envisage the screen while they tirelessly built the linotype and used it with excruciating laboriousness?

I think these kinds of questions are the source of my greatest frustration when it comes to social change. I can see the digital screens of tomorrow's humanity: knowingly accepting diversity as natural, effortlessly recognising the synergy of commonality and uniqueness (similarity and difference), playfully celebrating our dichotomous significance and insignificance. Yet everywhere I look are the human linotype machines of intolerance, discrimination, carbon waste and economic greed needlessly bashing out page upon wasteful page of poverty, marginalisation, environmental devastation and misery.

Can't we skip this age of archaic social technology?

Yes I know I'm being unrealistic and naive - I'm arguing with myself as I write. Of course the computer and desktop printer wouldn't (couldn't) have been invented without the gradual evolution of technology: the typewriter, the Gestetner Cyclostyle machine, the dot matrix printer. Individual human beings themselves evolve cell by cell, stage by stage, from fertilised egg to foetus, child to adult.

Social change, by comparison, also takes time. Note to self: allow it to take time.

Ok, ok, but meanwhile, I feel like I did leaving Bodyworlds: vaguely nauseous yet strangely fascinated and intrigued!