The transition from Victorian technology is accelerating. Their technologies are embedded into 21st century Britain, which has been shaped by them. The transition will be revolutionary, disconcerting and will be resisted by broad swathes of society.
Victorian technologiesare pervasive: canned food, 1812, refrigerated food, 1859, steel structured buildings, 1895, internal combustion engine, 1863, electric trains, 1879 light bulbs, 1812, postage stamps, 1835, aspirin, 1899, and London’s underground transport system, 1863. Britain is in thrall to Victorian technology. Incrementally, there have been improved performance but the inventions are Victorian. Their technologies creatively destroyed the status quo ante and along with it the certainties people relied on to make sense of the world.
Victorian technology was disruptive. Occasional use of pre-Victorian technologies can’t blind us to their exceptional and situation-specific usage.1 Discussing Victorian creative destruction is interesting but will 21st century Britain cope with a similar social and economic disruption? This discussion considers a single disruptive technology: transport.
Astonishingly the British government is sponsoring commercial electric vehicles (EV) through subsidies. They’re disrupting the marketplace for strategic reasons as the Climate Emergency compels state intervention. The intended consequence is reducing carbon emissions so global warming will be less rapid. Let’s imagine this is successful. There will be other outcomes, which are foreseeable and could be less welcome. Unforeseeable consequences are Known Unknowns.2 These aren’t precisely known but can be modelled through extrapolations.
An immediate consequence will be reducing consumption of fossil fuels. This is the principal objective and is accelerating current trends.3 Home fuelling of EVs is one of the points of the technology. This will further reduce the number of petrol stations, destroying jobs. These jobs will disappear for ever as a structural victim of the EV revolution. Shrinking the number of petrol stations will make conventional vehicles unattractive as ‘filling-up’ will become challenging.
EVs have a different maintenance regime. Car maintenance will be reoriented with the disappearance of engines for example. A change in technologies will delete a very significant number of enterprises, which are currently valued at £78.9 billion.4 Obviously EVs will generate manufacturing industries, especially in batteries, but the disruption will be enormous and there will be far fewer jobs.5
EVs don’t depend on a new technology, as batteries were invented in 1800. This isn’t the case with ‘driverless’ cars which are made possible by Artificial Intelligence.6 These cars are revolutionary. Driverless cars will render obsolete millions of jobs across numerous sectors.
Insurance claims will collapse,
crash repair work will vanish,
hospital admissions will decrease8
courts will be less busy
police work will diminish
every single driving job will disappear (Buses, HGVs, Taxis, etc.)
Driverless cars mimic Victorian innovations, introducing Britain to a new technological phase. They will be resisted but the implication of innovation is that the quaint is swept away and society changes accordingly.
The transition from Victorian technologies will mean workers cease to be cogs in a workplace or, in Victorian parlance, hands. Indeed the idea of a workplace itself will be an anachronism. like children working at the coalface. The lived life will be the most significant transition from our dependence on Victorian technologies.
1 Candle lit ‘romantic’ meals and horse and carriage rides are two commonplace examples of the quaintness of pre-Victorian technologies.
2 There are known knowns – Wikipedia
3 • Number of petrol stations in the UK 2000-2020 | Statista The reduction in the number of petrol stations has many causes but one of them is improved fuel efficiency. This news item illustrates the actuality for petrol stations after EVs become commonplace The average British driver would only need to charge an electric car 20 TIMES A YEAR and barely have to use a public charger, says Hyundai (msn.com)
4 UK Automotive Industry – SMMT
5 Engines are the high tech side of car manufacturing but there are many other processes such as wheels and tyres, wind shields, the chassis and interior trim which will still be needed.
6 self-driving_cars.pdf (publishing.service.gov.uk)
7 In reality, car crashes aren’t accidents and 94% are due to human error, not an accident. Reducing Driver Error Accidents – orsa.org.uk
8 Reported road casualties in Great Britain: provisional estimates year ending June 2020 (publishing.service.gov.uk) (1580 dead and 131,220 casualties)