Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
Steve no.2 Net gains (1903 × 588px) ;

Ubiquitous technology and the vanishing machines

Net Gains? Living Well With Technology
Professor Steven Connor

Co-Director of the Digital Futures Institute

03 March 2023

As part of our series, Net Gains? how we live well with technology, Professor Steven Connor asks whether our reliance on technology may have resulted in an extinction event – not of humans but of machines…?

steve connor crop

If there is one thing about technology about which we can be quite sure (or grimly reluctant to have any doubts), it is that technology is ubiquitous, and that our lives are becoming more and more technological. I am going to suggest something which I hope, in a moment or two, will seem just as obvious and undeniable: namely, that we are seeing at the same time a prodigious vanishing of technology.  It is not so much that artificial lighting, aeroplanes and hearing aids are actually becoming obsolete, as that they are fading into a kind of invisibility in plain sight, in which they seem no longer to count as technology. 

One way of getting at this is to reflect on all the things that we emphatically no longer mean when we use the word technology, because it has come to seem like the very opposite of a word with which in living memory, or mine, it used to be almost synonymous: the word machinery.

This has been accomplished through the replacement of the huge field of instruments and apparatus that have been so defining in human history – pumps, ploughs, carts, cannons, scissors, sewing machines – with one and only one kind of machine: the computer. In the past, different trades and occupations all had their characteristic tools, that so defined the lives of those who used them that they sometimes featured on their tombstones in place of their names. Nowadays every occupation uses the same piece of equipment for everything, even on the battlefield.

Not only does technology refer only to one kind of machine, this machine essentially only has one function, which is to control other machines.

Our technologies are almost all guidance systems, a function introduced in 1948 by Norbert Wiener with the nowadays rather antique word ‘cybernetics’. The workings of this meta-machine are better described as sociotechnical than as technological since its sphere of operation is that of social signs and signals. Even if this new machine can operate kinetically (calling a cab, launching a drone), this is a by-product of its primary function, which is, more and more to ‘order’ things – the second of the two functions of work distinguished by Bertrand Russell: ‘first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so’. 

This means that the world we think of as crammed with technology is equally well understood as a world from which machines are inexorably retreating or survive only as skeuomorphic ghosts within software visualisations. They are increasingly charming or puzzling souvenirs, in the condition that the late broadcaster, Terry Wogan attributed to his friend Barry Cryer at a dinner in his honour: ‘forgotten, but not gone’.

This accounts for the strange, lingering affection for obsolete machines – tape recorders, thimbles, pencil sharpeners, and (the object of my own personal veneration) gimlets.

Not only is ubiquity of technology in fact simultaneous with a vast extinction event, there has actually been an extraordinary stalling of technological development - compared to 1829 for example - when King’s College, London was founded along with the invention of corrugated iron, Braille and the victory of Stephenson’s Rocket in a steam locomotive race. 

The moon landing I watched as a young boy on 21st July 1969 was universally imagined to be the beginning of the age of space exploration, but turned out to be the beginning of a moratorium that has lasted decades. The last supersonic passenger plane flew before most new undergraduates were born, while the Boeing 747, which first flew in 1969, will be in service for many years yet.

It is surpassingly strange that our lives seem so governed by what we blithely call ‘tech companies’, which scarcely have anything at all to do with the development of new technologies, rather the speeding up of existing systems like the text message first developed in 1984, or the piggybacking by companies such as Uber on GPS tracking developed in the 1970s. 

To think about living well with technology, as we aim to in the Digital Futures Institute, must be to think about the kinds of living we are going to have to learn to make in the absence, or the spectral copresence, of all these vanishing machines, and, more importantly still, the skills, knacks and capacities we once developed in consort with them. 

Perhaps we should think of these ways of being technologically competent in the world in parallel with the worlds of memory and experience that are similarly lost every time another language goes extinct,  swallowed up by Latin, or English, or Mandarin, or whatever imperial monoglot assumes dominion. What shall it profit a man if he shall gain his soul and lose the whole world?

In this story

Steven Connor

Steven Connor

Professor of Living well with technology

Net Gains? Living Well With Technology

Our experts discuss some of the challenges of living well with technology: showing what we can learn from a long history of technological innovation as well as addressing the challenges of…

Latest news