Technology fetishism is skin deep

Our shallow obsession with gadgets disguises a conservatism where real change takes place at numbingly slow speed

A milestone has been reached, a Rubicon crossed. With the news, announced on the Guardian's front page on Wednesday, that ebook sales on Amazon have outstripped hardbacks for the first time, I have decided no longer to pay attention to hi-tech company marketing memos dressed up as news stories. That means that next time Mark Zuckerman converts another half billion users to Facebook, Jeff Bezos converts another half million words to Kindle ebook format, or Steve Jobs farts to the left – or will it be to the right this time? – I won't be reading.

It's not that such announcements aren't sometimes genuine news. The latest Amazon press release, for example, does confirm an admittedly fairly widespread suspicion that when consumers buy overpriced shiny gadgets, they spend a certain amount of money using them. IPhone users download apps. ITunes users download songs. Kindle users download paid-for ebooks..

No one could deny that ebook readers are catching on. What surprises me, though, amid the endless "what format do you prefer?" real and e-navel gazing that goes on whenever someone says "ebook", is how slow this catching on process is proving to be. Ebooks are cheaper to produce, aren't made out of trees, don't take up space, don't weigh anything, do fit in your pocket (as a whole library), can be viewed in a customisable font size, are easily annotated, readable in the dark, better, cleverer and better again. But still everyone says, oh I don't know, surely real books are better because, oh I don't know, you can read them in the bath. (To which the answer is yes, but you can't get real books read aloud to you while you have a proper bath).

What news stories like this really show is that the rampant technology fetishism, which runs like e-wildfire through our i-society, is really only skin-deep. To be sure, the fetishism is real enough, evidenced by the way in which our interest is so often more in the medium than its content. "What format do you read your newspapers in?" (not: "Did you read the news today?"). "Does your phone have a wide enough angle to take in the ceiling of the Sistine chapel?" (not: "The Sistine chapel's ceiling is too much to take in in one go"). If the future develops along the lines being laid by the present, the question of the century won't be: "Where were you when Barack Obama was assassinated?" but "Did you read about the dematerialisation of Steve Jobs on the iLavatory Mk 3.14 or Mk 3.14159265? Mk 3.1? Oh dear, you must be distraught?"

But the reality is that these shallow obsessions disguise a simple, pervasive conservatism. Imagine if William Caxton had returned to Westminster with his new printing press and everyone had said: "What's this newfangled nonsense? Hand-copied is much better – you really get the sense you're getting something for your money. (And besides, what are you doing with this euro-tech? You can't trust it you know.")

Sure, there will have been some moaning from the guild of copyists or some such, but you wouldn't have caught Caxton printing questionnaires asking readers whether they like the new technology or not.

It's not just media technology, either. Can you imagine the architects of the great cathedrals trying to get planning permission today, or even obtaining agreement on how best to honour the spirit of the past? Hagia Sophia was built in five years following the destruction of the fifth century church, yet it's taken the architectural, engineering, design and financial might concentrated on Manhattan island nearly nine years to replace the fallen twin towers with this.

We flatter ourselves with endless talk about living at the "cutting edge" in an era of "constant change" and "permanent technological revolution". Most of the time, though, by conspiring to keep capacity at a set distance from potential, the progress implicit in the technological cycle of perpetual upgrading is an illusion we use to distract us from the numbingly slow speed at which real change actually takes place. How else do you explain that, over 80 years after women obtained equal voting rights in this country, we still can't get more than four of them round the cabinet table, or more than one woman for every nine men into our company boardrooms?

Still, at least we can read all about it on the latest iDespair format while waiting distractedly for society to upgrade itself.

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