It’s odd how 11th September (or September 11th or 9/11) and 7/7 have become memorable dates, but 6th August isn’t remarked upon.

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I had a phone call this evening from a friend who lives on the other side of town. It was an ordinary conversation about normal stuff. But afterwards I was a bit freaked out by the whole thing – even forgetting the miracles of the phone network there are amazing things happening.

  1. The sound waves from her mouth travel through the air to the microphone in her phone.
  2. The sound waves wobble the diaphragm in the microphone.
  3. The moving diaphragm moves one part of an electromagnet relative to the rest.
  4. The moving electromagnet acts like a dynamo and generates an electrical signal that is an analogue of the sound wave that hit the diaphragm.
  5. Some of the signal is fed back to the earpiece in her phone – too little and it doesn’t sound natural, too much and it’s off-putting.
  6. The electrical signal swims its way through the phone network to my phone.
  7. When it gets to my phone it hits another electromagnet in the loudspeaker, which acts like an electric motor to wobble a cone or something big and flattish like that.
  8. The wobbling cone generates a sound wave that is an analogue of the electrical signal.
  9. The sound wave travels through the air to my ear.

While we were having our conversation I wasn’t thinking about any of that. The sound transmission was so good that I realised that it was a woman, speaking English, with my friend’s accent, in fact sounding just like my friend that I jumped straight to “it’s my friend Joy” without noticing any of the physics or neurological wonders going on. The phone network usually just does its job and gets out of the way so well that it’s as if she was in the room with me and not the other side of town. Sometimes it breaks down and the phone network gets in the way again – things like talking to someone on a mobile phone when they’re losing their signal – but most of the time it just works.

It then struck me (I was doing the washing up during all this thinking, which seems to encourage my mind to wander) that all the Web 2.0 hooplah does have substance. Email’s been around for ages, but blogs and fora allow people to be together when they’re not. Katy talks to friends in the evening via fora, and so has friendships that she probably wouldn’t have had without them. Often the main thing is the people and what they’re saying, but sometimes servers need fixing and the technology gets in the way again. We can share photos of the children with friends and family and they can see what we’re up to even though we haven’t met up in person, but occasionally Flickr doesn’t let us upload photos and gets in the way again.

Another thing that gets in the way is other people. Criminals try to steal control of my blog’s server so that it can join their army of bots, so we need to keep patching the blog software rather than using it to post content and take people’s comments. Greedy, sleazy and lazy people try to vandalise my blog by putting adverts for dubious products and services – if I wanted ads on my site I would carry adverts from something like Google – so I have to install Spam Karma and then occasionally check through the spam bin. And finally the nosy and worse may use what I post in ways I wouldn’t want, so we have to talk in code a bit and not mentioned our children’s names in full etc. Maybe another sign of a technology’s maturity is that it’s worth being used by criminals and scumbags.

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A little while ago there was a programme on the BBC called What Makes Britain Rich? by Peter and Dan Snow, which compared the UK economy now with how it was in the 1950s. It was a bit light in places, but it was still very good – Peter Snow could relate to the world of the 1950s, Dan Snow is a child of the modern world, and much of the programme was about how the two worlds were so different.

The major difference was the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the Knowledge Economy. We used to see ourselves as the workshop of the world; you had a job for life – school + job = conveyor belt from birth to retirement. But it went pear-shaped in the 70s and 80s: There were lots of clips of Peter Snow reading the news from the 80s, which formed a very depressing list of “company X is closing its factory in city Y with the loss of Z jobs”, and some equally depressing interviews with people from towns where the pit and/or factory had shut and nothing opened up in its place.

The new world was a big contrast to the old. No job for life – you have to hop from job to job like stepping stones across a river. The people interviewed said they didn’t mind having a large student debt, didn’t stress too much over not having a pension sorted, but didn’t expect the state to take care of them. There was an excellent bit were a mother and daughter were interviewed by the Snows and quite quickly the four divided up with Mum + Peter Snow putting their head in their hands in concern over the attitudes of their offspring to money, career and so on.

I’m a member of the Knowledge Economy myself, and the future apparently looks rosy for people like me. The Knowledge Economy makes up a bigger slice of the UK economy than of any other country in the world. While I was watching the programme, particularly the bit I with the mother and daughter, I couldn’t help thinking that the UK manufacturers used to think that their future was rosy too. The new and young usually see themselves as the end-product of history, the result of learning from all those mistakes in the past – we’ve got it right now. They don’t see that the same history that rolled up to them will continue to roll and they’ll be old and out-of-date soon. (How new is the New Forest any more?)

Admittedly there are some changes that happened during the 80s restructuring that probably won’t need to be done again. The change away from a job for life, the need to look after your own career and so on. But I can’t see how the Knowledge Economy will stay perfect and shiny forever, and today’s bright young things with the world at their feet will turn into tomorrow’s dinosaurs with poor prospects.

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In case you never knew or have forgotten, the title of this post isn’t using my own words.

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The title comes from the front page of the G2 bit of the Guardian from a few years back. It was the caption to a photo showing rows and rows of people in a call centre. The article to go with it was about the decline of heavy industry (ship building, in particular) in the North East, and the boom in call centre work due to the common liking for a Geordie accent. It’s stuck with me and I was reminded of it today. I apologise if this turns into a waffly ill-informed bit of nonsense – it’s partly my trying to exorcise something.

I left my last company for many reasons, one of which was the product I was working on was increasingly being marketed as a job killer. We were even asked to look in the local paper for the right kind of job adverts and our slimy sales and marketing people would phone up and invite the potential employer to buy our kit instead. 🙁

The job I’ve got now is largely neutral ethically – it doesn’t save lives but it doesn’t put people out of a job either. The company I work for is now looking into putting more automation into call centres, which is what reminded me of the G2 thing and the job killing. I shan’t go into this in any detail because it’s likely to be boring to outsiders and also I don’t want to worry about intellectual property.

But the general point (yes, there is a point) is technology, automation, rubbish jobs and so on – nice and precise (I did warn you this might be waffly). I think the best I can do is to fire out a load of questions, as I definitely don’t have solid answers to them. Any thoughts you have would be very welcome as I’m wrestling with this and have been for many years.

Is the UK always going to have a set of jobs that unskilled or low-skilled people can do? I.e. as automation (and even outsourcing and so on) mops up one kind of low-skilled job, will technological advances, changes in society and so on always create a new one? I’ve heard it said that if just banking lost all its computers, then it the entire working population of the country would have to start working for the banks to sustain the kind of banking we have now. I’m not sure how true this is, but true enough I suspect. Some of the jobs that computers do now have never been done by people, or at least haven’t for so long that we don’t notice it any more – large companies don’t have rooms full of computers adding up on machines (by “computer” I mean the old sense, which was “a person who computes”). We don’t have banks of typists any more as most people who produce documents do so themselves on a word processor. So far I can’t see a lack of jobs, but am I ignorant, and will the supply of jobs continue?

Are we always going to have unskilled people, and do we want to? This is the politically sensitive one, but is linked to the first one. If there is always going to be a need for unskilled people, then will there be enough people to meet that need? Are our society, our education and welfare structures, rigged to maintain this, and is this fair? The head of my sixth form was a very interesting man, who said that the traditional education system in this country mirrored the classical division of society into three: the intellectuals (good brains), the soldiers (good hearts) and the labourers (good hands). I hope that any teachers or ex-teachers reading this can give me chapter and verse about this. Given that we fortunately don’t need large conventional armies any more, do we still need the people who used to be no more than cannon fodder? Or, putting it less snobbishly, do we still need people to be like that?

The late night student debating point is this one – the big question about what potential does a given person have, can we all be super-stars, or are some people more equal than others? I don’t pretend for a moment that all young people should go to university – if I want a new boiler put in I’d much rather have someone skilled in plumbing than someone with an Oxford degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Someone who has problem solving skills, spatial awareness, physical dexterity and skill, the relevant practical bits of physics and chemistry and not someone who can tell me where Keynes got it wrong.

Before I get too glum or my head explodes with the enormity of it all, I am grateful for a little flash of Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A society got fed up with the useless third within itself – the telephone sanitisers and so on and cooked up a huge hoax that convinced everyone that some massive calamity was about to fall on their planet, and that they must all abandon it in 3 massive spaceships. The ‘useless’ third went first and eventually settled on another planet (the rebuilt Earth, I think). The other two thirds never had any intention of leaving as they were in on the hoax and stayed put. They got their just desserts when they were all wiped out by a very nasty disease from a particularly dirty telephone box. 🙂

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