Technology fast-forwards us to where we think we want to go. Nicola Dennis writes it is rare that the place we want to go to is the place we want to be.

I remember my Nana telling me about the first time she saw a vacuum cleaner (or a lux for the Southerners). She was a child and, doing what a child does, the story ends with her ponytail sucked up into the business end of the hoover.

Nana also saw the aftermath of two world wars, a bunch of national disasters, television, almost every iteration of the use of personal phones, the fax machine, computers and the early internet.

She didn’t live long enough to see the robot vacuum cleaner, or skype, or Netflix. I don’t think she would have minded. The computerisation of the sewing machine seemed to be a step too far for her.

And that is the thing about technology, isn’t it? It sneaks up so rapidly. One day you are using a zip-zap credit card machine and then, not very long after, you are making purchases on your wristwatch and wondering how many software updates you have to endure before the sweet release of death.

There are plenty of futurists ready to wax lyrical about the doom that technology will bring upon us and, frankly, that is pretty old hat. I want to discuss another aspect of technology: how it fast-for where we think we want to go. Because, it is rare that the place we want to go to is the place we want to be.

For example, look at animal breeding. The advent of genomics sped up genetic progress. That was, of course, the point of it. Instead of having to test-breed the next up-and-coming sire to see if his progeny is any good (a sign that he carries good genetics), genomics allows you to look under the hood and take a gander at the genetics directly. Genomics meant not having to wait for the sire to mature and then for his progeny to mature before deciding the sire was a worthy addition in the breeding programme. Assuming that you know what good genetics looks like, then you are away laughing. Except that, in the grand scheme of things, we don’t know diddly squat about how the A’s, T’s, G’s and Cs in the genetic code result in top production animals. So, genomics (without the back up from the ol’ progeny test) gets us to the bit where we realise we have overlooked something crucial many years quicker than if we had stuck to making mistakes at a slower pace. Think of the LIC hairy cattle disaster. Think of the rapid decline in fertility in dairy cattle as we pushed for better milk production. Nothing wrong with using genomics, far from it. It is still an important tool and we all learn something crucial about animal genomics each time the excrement hits the fan.

Looking outside the realm of animal production, nearly all of us have been subjected to social media’s “move fast and break things” approach. To be fair to Facebook, when they coined that motto, they were referring to breaking Facebook rather than wrecking global election systems, grandstanding terrorism and pitting vegan activist groups against food producers.

Did Facebook create covert political campaigns, terrorism or activists? Contrary to public opinion, the invention of bad ideas came before social media. But Facebook did timewarp us straight to where we thought we wanted to be: a global town electronically curated to make sure you bump into the people you most want to communicate with and step into the shops you most want to visit. A place where the old-fangled rules don’t apply and you can find and engage with anyone from around the world.

The fact that this is a wild-west style town square complete with public lynchings, conspiracy theories, thieves and beggars is a reflection of human society rather than the tech.

Our world leaders have yet to comfortably move beyond the stage where they might nuke each other’s citizens. There is no way the average human being has gone through enough software upgrades to navigate a digital world of micro-tribes. It has never been easier to look someone up and dismiss them as “the enemy” based on their interests, diet, or political views. Snap judgements and the “with us or against us” tribalism has always been around. But, tribalism has graduated from just race and religion to views about food and the environment, so I suppose that is a kind of progress.


Speaking of food and questionable ideas, there have been a few over the years. Nutrition is a tricky one. The human race knows even less about how food relates to health than it does about animal genomics. This is one of the reasons why the nightly news bounces back and forth on whether its viewers should partake in coffee or wine. It is going to take us centuries to work out what an ideal diet looks like, but luckily we have food processing technology to help us find out what a bad diet looks like, faster.

Through the well-intentioned efforts of the public health education combined with the unrestricted commerce of the food sector, we now have aisle after aisle of processed discretionary foods disguised as food that should be eaten on a regular basis. “Low fat” and “no added sugar” and “contains x types of fruit and vegetables” is stamped on brightly coloured boxes adorned with kids cartoons and pictures of real food. Almost all of it will fast track you to type 2 diabetes and the vicious cycle of metabolic disease. Yes, even Kellogg’s Nutri-grain with the Government’s 4 out of 5 “health star” rating.

The food processing and food marketing technology did not create the questionable idea that processed grains (i.e. sugar in a wholesome dress) should be the bulk of the population’s diet. That seems to have started with the prophecies of the Seventh-day Adventist church (founders of Sanitarium and Kellogg’s) and then gained momentum through some largely debunked observational studies which vilified eggs, butter and meat. Grains taste fairly unexciting on their own (boiled wheat anyone?), so this paved the way for hydrogenated vegetable fats and corn syrups, the perfect accompaniment to sugar if you are trying to make food as addictive as possible.

But we got to where we wanted to go, didn’t we? Cheap, delicious food stamped with guilt-free messaging. And it’s not over yet. The divisive social media environment is driving the conversation further towards processed, plant-based “meat” and “milk”. Will this throw more kiwis under the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff? Or will this go down in history next to radioactive mineral water and cocaine-laced coca cola as a fancy food faux pa?

In saying that, it is all too easy to put on your dystopian-tinted glasses when talking about today’s issues. When, really, there is no better time to be alive. World conflicts, hunger and poverty are at all-time lows. They are still very serious problems, for sure, but on a smaller scale than times gone by.

And, gone are the days when premature babies were given token names and sat by the fireside to die. My dear Nana spent 86 years explaining her name her (then toddler) sister had christened her with.