Is technology really a good thing?

The subject here is the Progress of Civilization. First, there was fire. Then, the wheel. Then, electricity. Followed by McDonald’s.

The puzzlement is why there are some things invented that are not necessary. More to the point, is everything that is now technically possible essentially necessary? Have we advanced, since we were swinging from trees, by embracing everything the boffins in their laboratories and Silicon Valleys have offered to us innocents?

There was the promise, we all remember, of the “paperless office.” The wondrous fax machine would render all of us faster methods of communication and, therefore, more free time from typewriters, ponderous handwritten letters, memos, all that riff-raff. Leaving all office-bound types endless hours to read Kierkegaard, think about Mother in the hospital, clean up the desk and even, possibly, knit while the fax machine did all the work.

And we all know the result. An avalanche, every day and every hour, of entire forests cut down to provide us with even more paper, offering cut-rate mortgages, cheap furniture and promised fortunes in penny mining stocks on the Bulgarian Stock Exchange. Each morning befe the boss arrives, high-paid executive secretaries in Armani duds have to clean the mountain-high clutter from the fax machine that was going to eliminate their jobs.

Moving right along, those who think they are advancing up the food chain have invented e-mail, which, as we know, has obliterated the fax machine. E-mail is designed for those people who don’t want to talk to other people.

As the Last Living Luddite (LLL), this scribbler is greatly amused to encounter the Modern Newspaper Newsroom. All the collected brains of Canadian journalism sit in their veal-feeding pens surrounded by semi-glass, and thus protected from their colleagues, e-mail their messages/vitriol/ gossip to their buddies who sit six metres away.

As the LLL recalls, a nervous cub reporter used to hand in his semi-Orwellian prose to the city editor, who would judge it a piece of dreck and tell the apprentice to go back to his Underwood and write in a form of English that Missus Bloggs in Moose Jaw would understand. Now, the cub communicates with the eye-weary computer expert who masquerades as the editor and would not recognize the kid if he spotted him in the press club – which doesn’t exist because all rising Hemingways now jog and drink only Perrier.

Which brings us to the cellphone, the latest advantage to civilization. Who among us does not greet with tired dread the concert/movie/restaurant/ even dinner party where some self-important jerk has buzzing in his back pocket an urgent message from a money dealer in Argentina that must be attended to immediately?

My favourite is standing on Whistler Mountain one morning, in the usual brilliant sunshine, watching some over-dressed ski buff desperately trying on his cell to contact his 12-year-old son, who was standing six feet away, using his own phone, his back to his dad. I rest my case. Was the world better without cellphones? Who would care?

I actually have a theory that newspapers were better before the telephone was invented. I mean that reporters – we’re talking Charles Dickens here – actually had to leave the office and talk to real people. With the advent of the phone, lazy reporters just phoned people they had never met to get “quotes” on the story of the day. Today, they e-mail some mysterious executive they have never met to get e-mail back with its subsequent insincerity.

I have two sons, both of whom live at the other end of the country. One is the essential computer geek. He upgrades his high-grade machine every six months. He sleeps with the Internet, Google and all these other geeks who don’t like to talk to other people. He has a cellphone of course, which strangely is never on, and voice mail. I seldom hear his actual voice.

My other son – thankfully, genes do run down the circuit – is a fumbler at computers. He obviously doesn’t like them. So we chat all the time on a thing called a telephone. It’s absolutely amazing how civilization does progress.

Allan Fotheringham has been a consistently controversial columnist for 30-plus years.