Back in the 1970’s I, like many in the tech industry, followed the work of James Martin – a genuine guru and polymath who between 1965 and 2006 wrote over 100 books, many of which were huge best sellers. The book he is most remembered for is The Wired Society which presciently predicted the impact of what we now call the internet, at a time when even personal computers were still in the realms of science fiction.
I first saw James in London in 1972 at one of his seminars on Real Time Systems Design. His book and ideas on that topic were widely followed as the industry made the giant leap from batch processing to online and his seminars were sell out events. In the mid 1980’s I had the great fortune to join his consulting company James Martin Associates or JMA, the company formed to implement James’ ideas. And over the following decade or so I and colleagues worked with the world’s leading corporations and large governments to guide them in adopting the ideas, methods and technologies for automating the automation process.
But for me the book that James Martin should really be remembered for is Technology’s Crucible. Published in 1987 it was his thoughtful analysis of, in his own words, “how the high technology of today, and man’s own nature, impact the quality of life tomorrow?”
In this book Martin discussed how with devastating speed, an ocean of technology is rolling in. No business, no industry, no institution will be left untouched. He advised that what seems improbable to one generation seems commonplace to the next: genetics engineering, super-robots, artificial intelligence chips, appalling weapons systems, psychrotropic drugs, workerless production factories etc. And he asked, “Are we at the mercy of technology? Or can we channel it to our own ends? If not at the mercy of technology, are we at the mercy of human nature?
The book Technology’s Crucible is actually set as a film script set in the year 2019, and the Narrator asks the question, “Would the course of history have been different if the public in the 1980s had understood the journey on which they had embarked?”
Each chapter of the book then examines various aspects of technology and society as seen from 2019. And in general the book reflects James Martin’s optimistic viewpoint and suggests that by 2019 there is a highly sophisticated society that concentrates on the ultimate purpose of our labours and minimises drudgery needed to achieve the purpose. It refines and reflects the pleasures that civilization can achieve. It removes drudgery, creates wealth, gives us superb systems, access to knowledge, mobility and supports the very essence of the word civilized. He reflects that a striking aspect of history is that new technologies destined to change society dramatically have always taken us by surprise. There has always been a reluctance to anticipate or believe the implications of powerful technology. The industrial revolution was one such fundamental change in human history that it could not have been anticipated. But by the second half of the twentieth century the early warnings of new technology should have been heeded.
The problem is that technology, just as in the crucible of the sorcerer’s apprentice, is like magic. It’s literally impossible to predict. And here Martin is as fallible as everyone else. In the book he covers the topics of work in the future, education, government, transport and war (or rather the end of war). And in each instalment he paints a vision of how technology will dramatically change life and civilization for the better. From the perspective of 1987 it’s an inspiring picture. Sadly from today’s perspective it’s rather demoralizing. Our reality is, as we all know, that technology has facilitated a dystopian, highly unequal society in which many of the 1980s problems have been exacerbated. The rise of authoritarian governments, the loss of integrity and truth in communications generally, the complete failure to protect the world from the threat of climate change and loss of biosphere all have their roots in the interaction between technology and society.
As I said, James Martin was always an optimist. One thought in his book that remains with me is his thinking that we should take a more proactive, planned approach to technology. Of course we can’t control innovation. But we might consider treating technology like pharmaceuticals. We don’t release drugs into the market until we know they are safe. Why do we do that with technology?
But I don’t under-estimate the difficulties in doing this.
So let’s ask James’ question again: “Can the course of history be altered if the public in 2021 understand the journey on which they are embarked?”
References and Links:
Technology’s Crucible, By James Martin
1987 Prentice Hall Inc.
An exploration of the Explosive Impact of Technology on Society During the Next Four Decades
Democracy is not a fragile flower still it needs cultivating. January 2021
Truth will ultimately prevail . . . ! November 2020
Education in the Covid19 World – Problem or Opportunity July 2020
It’s time to exert governance over the the Global Tech Leaders! August 2017