I have to confess, I’m a big fan of technology. I own a MacBook Air, an iPad, a smartphone, a digital camera, a speaker system and much else besides. Every time Google or Apple announce the release of a new product, I’m always amongst the first to hear.
But recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that technology is playing a crucial role in the destruction of social institutions. In the UK, so much of our public life is under threat from technology. Pubs and bars are closing down fast as people prefer to socialise online and drink at home. Curry houses are closing down as people order takeaways online. The traditional retail sector is under considerable pressure as people increasingly shop online. Independent book retailers cannot compete with the likes of Amazon. None of this is unique to Britain; witness the decline of the once-mighty American shopping mall.
Of course, the internet alone isn’t to blame for the decline of these institutions. Our tax system favours online businesses. Young people nowadays aren’t as outgoing as previous generations were. Licensing laws often presume guilt on bars and clubs which attract a supposedly disreputable crowd. Globalisation was always going to expose traditional enterprises to new forms of competition. There are also industry-specific problems, such as pubs faced with the threat of cheap supermarket alcohol.
The point is, it simply isn’t good enough to write off the decline of social institutions as ‘changing habits.’ There are fewer and fewer decent places in which to socialise in the real world. In the UK, the only places which are doing well are those that either cater to the very rich or the very poor; high-end restaurants and gastropubs are thriving alongside fried chicken shops and cheap takeaways. Some young people may be content to watch Netflix instead of go to the cinema, or stream music instead of go to a live music venue, but I’m not. The internet is wonderfully convenient, but it doesn’t replace the joys of engaging in sociable activities with others in person. The decline of such places does not bode well for those of us who want our social institutions to thrive alongside the widespread use of technology. Epicurus would have been appalled at how alienating and atomised modern life has become. The solution surely rests in our society rediscovering the simple love of spending a bit of time and money with friends away from home.