What Joy Lofthouse and Other Women Did in the 1940s

Most people will recall having one of those brief moments from time to time when an unexpected insight suddenly appears and the world changes. It happened recently when I read an obituary for Joy Lofthouse who’d passed away in the UK at age 94. Back in 1943, when she was working as a 20-year-old bank cashier, she’d responded to an advertisement in the Aeroplane magazine. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was looking for women to train for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Despite fierce competition her application was successful and she went on to become one of 164 female pilots during the Second World War who undertook the vital task of ferrying military planes around the UK from one air base to another. Here’s a direct quote from the piece:

Alongside workaday aircraft she also flew more spectacular machines. There were Hawker Tempest Vs, North American Mustangs and Supermarine Spitfires, all 400mph fighters. She flew a total of 18 types of aircraft – relying on a map and the view out of the cockpit for navigation – and the Spitfire was her enduring favourite. (Fountain, 2017).

All well and good you might say. But take a moment to reflect on those words in the last sentence: ‘relying on a map and a view out of the cockpit for navigation.’ Several thoughts arise: at 400mph? How did she get away with it? Would it be acceptable practice now? More significant, how many people these days would be capable of routinely performing similar feats of navigation and endurance? True, a few highly accomplished pilots might perhaps do so under ideal flying conditions. Yet it’s clear that most people would be completely out of their depth. Why?

One answer can be found in a spate of reports during mid-2017 about a significant number of hapless motorists in New South Wales who believed they were headed for a beauty spot in the Blue Mountains but found themselves in a dead end lane a long way from their intended destination. Pictures appeared in local papers of stranded motorists standing around looking lost. One of the inhabitants was moved to put up a sign saying ‘this is not the Blue Mountains’! Following this train of thought leads to many similar stories where travellers have lost their bearings and landed up in embarrassing places such as lakes and rivers. Nearly everyone who has used a GPS device for navigation will have experienced some form of cognitive dissonance when the real world and an electronic simulacrum fail to match up – which they often do. What then?

Well, a certain amount of common sense is useful. If there’s a canal or a wall ahead when the GPS says it’s a road you’d be well advised to stop. But beyond any variety of common sense there’s a larger issue concerning awareness. Obviously the latter takes many forms but in this context the issue is about spatial awareness – how one’s immediate location relates to wider spaces, structures and landforms. The broad set of skills that allow us to know and appreciate our location in space is part of our human inheritance from the earliest times. But they are fading under early 21st Century conditions because machines are now taking over many of these tasks. The point is that the rise of portable devices such as GPS navigators and mobile phones means that the skills and capacities they are replacing are declining through lack of use. How many people actually remember phone numbers these days? If this remains a strong trend then many people risk becoming pale reflections of their forebears who honed their navigation skills through constant application over millennia. Which would leave humans that much weaker and under-equipped for the rigours that most certainly lie ahead.

So it’s not surprising that people are waking up to the fact that active steps are needed to rein in technical excesses. A short article for the Age David Brooks outlines a rationale supported by what he calls the ‘three main critiques of big tech.’

  1. It is destroying the young. Social media promises an end to loneliness but actually produces an increase in solitude and an intense awareness of social exclusion. Texting and other technologies give you more control over your social interactions but also lead to thinner interactions and less real engagement with the world.
  2. It is causing this addiction on purpose, to make money. Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with “hijacking techniques” that lure us in and create “compulsion loops.”… News feeds are structured as “bottomless bowls” so that one page view leads down to another and another and so on forever.
  3. Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are near monopolies that use their market power to invade the private lives of their users and impose unfair conditions on content creators and smaller competitors (Brooks, 2017).

So if we want to get beyond the present ‘wild IT’ or ‘anything goes’ phase we collectively need to decide on how and where to set limits. In Brooks’ view

Online is a place for human contact but not intimacy. Online is a place for information but not reflection. … Online is a place for exploration but discourages cohesion. It grabs control of your attention and scatters it across a vast range of diverting things. (Brooks, 2017)

By contrast he suggests that ‘we are happiest when we have brought our lives to a point, when we have focused attention and will on one thing, wholeheartedly with all our might.’ So rather than accept the current myth that high tech offers us ‘the best’ in life we could take it down a notch or two. Perhaps it merely provides what he calls ‘efficiency devices.’ The point is not to eliminate high tech but to reduce its current over-dominance, to decide where it fits best in the wider frame of human life and culture. Active engagement with the world involves getting offline and putting away the both the GPS and the mobile phone.

If Joy Lofthouse could do without them while flying powerful fighting machines through the English weather at all times of the year during wartime, we can certainly do so ourselves. Perhaps more motorists would then rediscover how to find the Blue Mountains by using their own in-built navigation system.

Brooks, D. (2017). How evil is tech? Age, November 29.

Fountain, N. (2017). Joy Lofthouse (Obituary). Guardian, December 3.

 

The Internet and Human Agency

Many people seem to think that tackling the big issues of the IT revolution is a demanding occupation requiring considerable expertise.[1] While there’s some truth in this view, it does not mean that individuals are helpless – far from it. Throughout history oppressive systems of any kind survived only because large numbers of people provided passive assent. In the case of the current Internet the vast majority may well continue to hand over their rights – and subject themselves to pervasive surveillance – in return for what they perceive as ‘free’ services for some time. The counter meme that ‘if something is free you are the product’ has yet to achieve broad acknowledgement, but this could change. It’s worth remembering that the use of ‘suboptimal’ Internet enabled services was never presented as a truly free choice in the first place. It came bundled with skilfully hidden costs and penalties some of which are only now becoming clear.

The long term impacts of high end design, coupled with pervasive and psychologically seductive merchandising, suggests that the choices people make as consumers are, in fact, not really free at all (Dennis, 2017). This is not a new idea. It’s been understood at least since Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders (Packard, 1957). But pervasive advertising arguably works like social acid by penetrating the body politic and quietly dissolving human options and capabilities by artifice and design. It’s another profoundly ambiguous ‘gift’ from the US that has exploited human cupidity and weakness for at least a century. For it to become the core business model of the current Internet places a heavy burden on the rest of the world and reflects the continuing moral decline of the US (Zuboff, 2015; Greste, 2017).

At the micro or personal scale, however, there are ways to escape the consumer trap, some of which are quite straightforward. For example, one might begin to experience a sense of discomfort or betrayal about being ‘constructed’ by powerful corporations as merely a passive consumer. From here it is but a short step to contesting reductive conceptions of what it means to be human. Viewing people in such ways certainly vitiates human respect and undermines human autonomy. Six decades ago Packard believed it unethical and his assertion has not been disproved by anyone since. A related strategy views language as a medium of great symbolic power. To develop relevant concepts and language around what the Internet is, what it does – and especially its personal and social costs – helps to sustain the understanding, the symbolic capacity, of anyone interested in solutions. Becoming aware of how Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest have grown rich by collecting and selling every piece of information that can be scraped from our on-line activities supports processes of reflection that can readily tend toward refusal. Refusal, that is, to use this service in this form from this particular source. So, while the US government, in its currently divided and intellectually parlous state, remains diverted by other concerns, this is by no means the end of the story. We can propose that individuals can enact their own versions of anti-trust regulation simply by withdrawing assent from organisations that exploit them.

Smart phones with their multitude of apps, many of which routinely scan, monitor and send streams of personal data to remote agencies, are a major and continuing concern. Adults, can, if they wish, take control over these devices and apps to some extent. In the US legislation exists to protect children but its effectiveness is debatable. For example, in July 2017 the Centre for Digital Democracy (CDD) filed a class action against the Disney Corporation accusing it of subjecting children to commercial exploitation. Apps for nearly 50 Disney media productions designed for young children were said to include embedded trackers that extracted personal data and sent it for analysis by corporate interests. According to the director of the CDD ‘these are heavy-duty technologies, industrial-strength data and analytic companies whose role is to track and monetise individuals’ (Fung & Shaman, 2017). Respect for childhood and children per se is clearly among the many casualties of the present media landscape.

Currently it is impossible for anyone to shield themselves entirely from scanning, tracking, the expropriation of personal data and related abuses. Such practices remain too embedded, too profitable and effective (for a few) to be replaced overnight. Meanwhile options are available to concerned individuals wishing to reduce their overall exposure. Various ‘how-to’ accounts exist, some of which are up-dated over time. One example from mid-2017 was an article written by Darien Graham-Smith in the Observer. He sets out some of the ways that personal interactions with Internet giants can be modified through careful use of privacy-related menus. He also recommends moving to non-invasive web browsers that do not track searches (Graham-Smith, 2017)

Strategies such as these may appear insignificant when set against the many broader, macro-level changes that are needed. But if or when enough people start taking them, the climate of opinion could change rapidly. As more people realise that a social licence to operate as they please was, in fact, neither sought by, nor ever granted to the oligarchs, the latter appear certain to find themselves increasingly under siege (Solon & Siddiqui, 2017).

References and Note

Fung, B. & Shaman, H. (2017). These Disney apps may be spying on your children, Age, August 9.

Dennis, R. (2017). Curing Affluenza. Melbourne: Black Inc.

Graham-Smith. D. (2017). How to escape the online spies. Observer, May 14.

Greste, P. (2017). The decline of America’s moral authority: losing the Trump card. The Saturday Paper, April 1.

Packard, V. (1957). The Hidden Persuaders. London: Longmans, Green.

Solon, O. & Siddiqui, S. (2017). With friends like these… Guardian, September 3.

Zuboff, S. (2015). Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects for an information civilisation, Journal of Information Technology, 30, 75-89.

Image credit: JAYKAES.CO.UK (Brick Lane, London)

Note

[1] This short article was initially part of a much longer essay: The IT Revolution Reassessed Part 3: Framing Solutions written for Futures. But the piece grew beyond reasonable bounds and had to be cut. This section never felt quite ‘right’ in the original text, which is one reason why it was removed. Parts 1 & 2 of this project are currently ‘in press’ within the Elsevier editing system and Part 3, will appear in the journal in due course. For those interested, the pre-publication manuscript version of Part 1: Literature Review and Key Issues can be found in the Recent Work section of the Foresight International site and this weblog.