Problems of modern life are often blamed on ‘technology’, but problems arise not so much from technology itself (a pencil or wheel is a technology) as from its use and purpose. I’ve just returned from a short holiday in Spain. The autovia from Malaga, which has been extended over the twenty years I have visited Andalusia, took me speedily towards the Sierra Madre mountain villages. It has deeply impacted the landscape, but there is beauty in a seamless highway of bridges, tunnels and viaducts that connects and tames the rugged terrain. It has also boosted Spain’s economy through tourism and national communications.
In the Sierra Madre, ancient artificial channels known as acequias form a 3,000km (1,800 mile) irrigation network built by the Moors between the 8th and 10th centuries. These Islamic water management techniques made life possible for agrarian communities. Ancient gates conserved and distributed snow from the height of the mountains, sending scant and seasonal water resources down the acequias into the valleys. In the newly fertile conditions, the abundance of crops introduced by the Moors thrived, among them almonds, artichokes, chickpeas, aubergines, lemons, pomegranates, spinach, quince, walnuts and watermelon. The system subsists, though some acequias have been abandoned through population change. As climate change worsens, this traditional water management system will become even more important in helping communities in the Sierra Nevada cope and equitably share an increasingly scarce and unpredictable resource.
Returning to Bristol airport brought me up against a new technology: Artificial Intelligence as applied to passport control. About a hundred returning passengers shuffled towards the gates of the passport reading machines. A large animated notice explained that the technology would speed up entrance into GREAT Britain (‘GREAT’ in huge letters). The few airport staff present were engaged in making the process work, advising people how to insert their passport into the reader, look straight at the camera, and so on. It was distinctly not quicker than inspection by a human being. But it doubtless reduces employment costs, reducing former immigration officials to machine minders. This too is an ancient technique. As Dr Andrew Ure wrote in The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835):
It is in fact the constant aim and tendency of every improvement in machinery to supersede human labour altogether, or to diminish its cost.