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February 21, 2019

G-Spot: If we don’t pay attention, the speed of technology will leave us behind

 I find the speed at which technology is taking over our lives quite frightening. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some small-minded fellow standing in the way of progress. Nevertheless, I do wish it would slow down a little, sometimes.

 Seventeen years ago, almost to the day, in fact, Time magazine published an essay by American writer Stewart Brand, who gave us the brilliant quote: “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road.”

 The article in the magazine was about the acceleration of technological change and what it would mean for humanity. In it, Brand wrote: “Technologies with this property of perpetual self-accelerated development — sometimes termed "autocatalysis" — create conditions that are unstable, unpredictable and unreliable. And since these particular autocatalytic technologies drive whole sectors of society, there is a risk that civilisation itself may become unstable, unpredictable and unreliable. Perhaps what civilisation needs is a NOT-SO-FAST button.”

 Since, of course, there is no such button, we have to make other plans.

 I was recently at a conference attended by South African mayors on the challenges faced by local government. While listening to the presentations, I couldn’t help but think how globalisation has resulted in a similarity and commonality of experiences across the globe.

 One speaker mentioned the rapid development of self-driving cars. Now, for someone like me who is uncomfortable with automatic transmission (even though it is fantastic in heavy traffic conditions), the idea of a car that usurps all control from drivers brings out a cold sweat in me.

As the speaker spoke about a future in which these satanic devices (my words, not his) will be responsible for taking people from their homes to their places of work and then returning empty to their recharging ports back at home before returning to pick up their charges at the end of the work day, I was both fascinated and terrified.

The little kid in me who liked sci-fi stories was beguiled by the thought that the fantasy stories of my childhood were being actualised in my lifetime. However, the control freak in adult me, who likes to be in charge of the car when he’s driving it and is one of the worst passengers in the world, always struggling not to slam on the invisible brakes on the passenger side of the car  was absolutely frantic.

Then there are all the other changes to the infrastructure of our cities that will come about when self-drive cars are the norm. We will no longer need parking spots, and so parking fees and attendants will disappear from the scene overnight. All those people currently making money hand over fist from providing parking, be they at the shopping malls, CBD or airport, will have to find some other cash cow.

Forget me and my puny fears, but are our towns and cities preparing for this fast-arriving future? Do the people we are electing to run our municipalities have a plan, or are they completely oblivious?

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