Economics · Modern Times

Why Are We Ashamed Of Technology?


A truck turned over showing all the ugly machinery you don't normally see.
Not a sight for one’s morning coffee! A truck, naked for all to see.

It is said that there was a time when people were so ashamed of themselves that they clothed the legs of their grand pianos. They couldn’t bear the thought that they had, well, certain things that were to do with legs. Whilst the rumour was stronger than the occurrence, for the Victorians, it was normality to dress their ladies down to the ankle.

But then, we are modern and don’t look at our own society in that kind of way, do we?

Only there is a lot of shame in the way we go about our daily lives; it’s only that we don’t know it. What I mean by this is that the actions are so prosaic, so ordinary that we’ve forgotten their true meaning. Indeed, to see such ordinary things as having meaning at all is the challenge.

But how can it be a challenge when society has always been like this? How can it be any different? Well, that is one reason for writing my book – the other is that few of us ladies willingly wear the volumes and layers of clothes that our great-grandmothers did! If we do, it’s as a kind of weekend treat, rather than a daily chore.

There is one thing we do cover up, and that is our technology, much of which is decidedly ugly. I was reminded of this when reading the local newspaper this morning and there was a report of an overturned lorry. There was its bare bottom, displayed in all its shameful ugliness for the world to see. Normally we don’t see such things, the lorry is usually an impressive, well designed and nicely painted machine. It just leaves the smell of diesel exhaust behind it, but nobody notices that because that’s how our modern world is, isn’t it?

These aesthetics are all artificial, though… they are a loincloth for the naked. Not that we think of such things as artificial; when I worked as a product designer, during all those years, it never crossed my mind! It was just something that was nice to do, and being paid for it was even nicer. Even if my boss, Professor Slany, wasn’t so nice to me; everybody who counted, that is to say, my colleagues, were fantastic. Only, my job wasn’t to design the exterior of a product, my job was to hide the grizzly machinations of engineers.

If you take a close look at the underneath of that lorry, you’ll see all manner of things, all of which have a purpose. There is not one element of that design which is not carefully considered and engineered down to the last gram of weight. If it’s not needed, it’s not there at all. In that the underside being unseen, it is largely uncared for, the result being that it is brown with dirt. One homogeneous colour that is the result of worn road surfaces.


Now there are one or two of you more expert types that will have noticed that the vehicle is driven on both axles. This is quite unusual, and unless you were even more of an expert, wouldn’t notice this from just looking at the shiny paint on the bodywork. Underneath, there’s an extra cardan shaft to take the power of the motor to the front wheels. In most lorries, this isn’t needed, and as an extra expense, wouldn’t be there at all. A farm vehicle of this kind occasionally needs the extra grip to get it moving, so is worth buying on this account.

A farmer – or a military type – would think of this and regard it as a sensible investment. This is still in the realm of ‘purchase money’ where what is spent is returned to one directly in the form of goods. This kind of spending means the buyer can stay within his comfort zone: he gets exactly what he pays for. No risk taken. After all, a risk is to step outside one’s comfort zone. This is key to understanding how a business hobbles itself, and why in a world where risks are avoided, economies eventually stutter.

The trouble is that this kind of “risk free decision making” only covers the risks with that blanket of Somnia: the blanket that doesn’t cover ugly machinery with painted panels, it covers them with the illusion that they aren’t there at all.

We are so used to seeing stylish cars, and popping the beyond-your-budget bonnet, looking at the styled engine with its shiny exhaust pipes and the profusion of wires, tubes and cables. If you could afford it, it would be all yours, a direct exchange from one comfort zone to another, the one way with the money, the other with the motorcar.

If, however, nobody’s going to see you in your motorcar, and think “wow, he’s made it because he’s got a Porsche 911” (or whatever the newest and chicest model is these days), you aren’t going to waste your hard earned money on the luxury of carefully polished metal. In this crane, seen on the quayside of the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam, it looks like the overturned lorry – only without being overturned. Here, technology is displayed for all to see, only when so few people come to the docks, it’s quite reasonable for the businessman to display his shame openly; after all, his workers have no right to complain about it. They are paid to keep quiet on this issue.

And keeping quiet for long enough inures people to work in unsightly places where the only noise is the grinding of gearwheels. It doesn’t take long for people to accept that this is the only kind of work they can do.

There is a little pod on this ugly crane, so that the driver is out of the rain.
The little pod is for the driver. An expense for the owner.

There is one thing that is unnecessary on this crane – and that is the housing for the operative. The operative won’t have a name, just a listing in the expenditure books, he’s anonymous to the boss, and that very anonymousness allows the operative the comfort of not being disturbed. Which means he can’t complain if he’s out in the cold and rain whilst the expensive machinery is kept covered. After all, to complain means the operative has to take a risk – risking his job, this time. But then, in certain countries, there are regulations about such things – and regulations always mean expense to the business owner.

Indeed, without regulations – something I will be approaching in the latter stages of my “Ship Design In The Modern Era” – we see that the workers, the operatives, are left out in the rain. It is expensive to add comforts for them, and as they are workers, don’t need to be comfortable. They only need to work. The problem comes when the savings to the boss increase the dangers to the workers, and it is precisely this which I will cover later in that series: a saving of this kind is always to add a danger somewhere else. It’s what regulations are there for, and is why America has so few of them.

Wherever you see a polished panel, you are seeing something that has been bought for show. For the businessman, this is only needed if they are seen; if they are hiding themselves from shame, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. Indeed, since other business owners think the same, they are going to hammer everybody on price in any case – so there is literally no room for the frills. What they get is exactly what they pay for. And nothing else.

I wonder what kind of discount that farmer got on his brand new lorry? It doesn’t matter, it’s all insured. There are regulations for this kind of thing!


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