Griffin on Tech: The Queen had a powerful message: embrace tech, keep your humanity
Queen Elizabeth II sent her first email via ARPANET in 1976.
She recorded her first televised Christmas broadcast in grainy black and white back in 1957. A year later, Her Majesty made the first subscriber trunk dialled telephone call, which was received by Edinburgh’s Lord Provost more than 350 miles away.
There’s no real evidence that the Queen was an avid tech enthusiast or gadget lover. She’s rumoured to have had her own Blackberry in the early 2000s but never really used computers to a great extent - why would you when you can just dictate an email to one of your legions of servants?
She likely took part in these iconic moments in the development of technology at the urging of her aides. But despite the Royal family being steeped in tradition and, some would argue, resistant to change, when it came to technology the Queen was incredibly open-minded.
The Queen's maiden TV broadcast
As the pandemic lockdowns saw her public engagements cancelled, the 94 year-old monarch took to video calls just like everyone else.
Her interviews over the years reveal no fear or suspicion of technology, quite the opposite in fact. She was as excited about the advent of satellites and the internet as everyone else. But her commentary on how technology has changed the world reflected her desire for us to hold onto our humanity despite the rapid advances technology brought.
"It is not the new inventions which are the difficulty," she said in 2017.
"The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery.
"They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless, honesty counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint.”
The Queen could easily have been talking about the rise of Big Tech, its facilitation of clickbait, misinformation and its pursuit of profit at the expense of the well-being of its billions of users. Essentially, the problem isn't the tech, it's the wetware sitting in front of it.
In her 1983 Christmas address, the Queen reflected on the “age-old problems of human communication” which remained as challenging as ever despite new technology advances, such as the new Apple Mac with its revolutionary graphical user interface, which had debuted that year.
"We have the means of sending and receiving messages, we can travel to meetings in distant parts of the world, we can exchange experts; but we still have difficulty in finding the right messages to send, we can still ignore the messages we don't like to hear and we can still talk in riddles and listen without trying to comprehend.”
In the age of social media, her words ring truer than ever.
"Perhaps even more serious is the risk that this mastery of technology may blind us to the more fundamental needs of people. Electronics cannot create comradeship; computers cannot generate compassion; satellites cannot transmit tolerance," she said in that same Christmas address.
Elizabeth II knew that she embodied an institution that was dying. Instead of fighting against that, she embraced the incredible change that happened throughout her reign and adapted to it.
Whether you are a royalist or a republican, there’s good reason to respect the grace with which she faced a new reality, while retaining her values, as old-fashioned as some of them may have seemed.
We live at a time when many of the “ageless ideals” the Queen no doubt believed in all of her life are being questioned or even torn down. Some see that as progress, others as an abandonment of what forged the modern world into what it is.
#WFH QE II style
Pondering the dawn of a new millennium in 1999, the Queen was again philosophical about what the future would bring.
“I do not think that we should be over-anxious. We can make sense of the future - if we understand the lessons of the past,” she said.
"The future is not only about new gadgets, modern technology or the latest fashion, important as these may be. At the centre of our lives - today and tomorrow - must be the message of caring for others, the message at the heart of Christianity and of all the great religions.”
What was important when her ancestors ruled over 1,000 years ago, is fundamentally the same today. The message, from a woman who had seen it all, was that new technology will arrive and change our lives in myriad ways. But the essence of being human doesn’t change.
In a world where many technologists are obsessed with the challenges of augmenting, hacking, extending and redefining what it means to be human, we would do well to remember that.
RIP QE II 1926 - 2022
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