Sleepwalking into the unknown

First World problems! I first encountered this phrase a couple of years ago in a conversation with a friend. Since then it has entered into the vernacular. In doing so, it has lost its original admonition to put things into perspective, as in the story related by my friend, and is used as a glib statement to raise a giggle or even used as a badge of honour. This is, of course, because First World problems have become our obsession. So, it should come as no surprise to you when I tell you that a topic in the news this last week was the fact that Eddie Redmayne had decided to not use his smartphone anymore because he was spending too much time on it. OK, he is an actor, in the public eye and an Oscar nominee (as I write), so it may be slightly more interesting to the wider public than the fact that I don’t use my smartphone very much at all. But not much really!

This is why I don’t use Twitter: I would get in so much trouble. At least when I write this column, contrary to popular belief, I do not just write from emotional reactions, but consider the wording, have a cooling-off period and then do a recheck before pressing send. What made the Eddie Redmayne news even less newsworthy was the fact that he hadn’t completely stopped checking emails and social media, but just did it on a laptop instead! Hidden amongst this celebrity gloss was an important research finding: British workers spend as much time, if not more, checking their emails outside of work as they get in annual leave allowance. Think about it! This is just another piece of evidence that shows that our current technology culture is causing us to be unhappy and more anxious.

One advantage of being what I would call wise, but my children would call resistant to change, a technology dullard and old fashioned, is that by not having to keep up with the Joneses on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, I had time over the Christmas holiday to catch up on my ‘hard copy’ reading. One theme that cropped up on a regular basis, in line with the news above, was the disruptive nature of technology. One newspaper article, by Yuval Harari, described how the rapid changes in technology are happening faster than society has the ability to decide how best to implement them and control the potential downsides. The internet has grown organically, without anyone deciding which was the best design to maintain ‘sovereignty, borders, privacy and security’. Whilst the author recognised that people have different views and many are happy with the situation as it is, his main contention is that there was no discussion about it: it was just imposed. This continues today, and will do so in the future, in other technology areas, some of which I mentioned in last month’s column.

The impact of this was illustrated in two articles in The New Scientist of 12 December 2015. The first article described what happens to a personal picture sent by email and then posted on a Facebook page by the recipient. Depending on where it is sent to and from, copies of the picture are stored in data farms in any number of countries, all with different privacy laws. The other article described the impact of the new app services, the so-called gig economy, such as Uber and Airbnb. Whilst these services derive benefits for their users, it is the people employed by these companies who can lose out. They are isolated from fellow workers and their employer, and their initial line manager, could be ‘an algorithm’. Workers’ rights need modernising to match these new business models and society is only belatedly doing something about this.

Whilst we may think that the NDT profession is somewhat protected from the negative impact of technology, by way of its specialist nature, its traditional inertia and its regulated qualifications, it would be foolhardy to think that it will go totally untouched by future technological-based new-business paradigms. We need to be examining the potential consequences of technological developments and thinking now about how we, the profession, can respond quickly should a disruptive technology start impacting negatively on the provision of NDT services. Now, if only I could get off this laptop!

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within the NDT Newspaper. They do not represent the views of Amec Foster Wheeler or the HSE who funded the PANI projects.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Newton Building, St George’s Avenue, Northampton NN2 6JB. Fax: 01604 89 3861; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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