No-one at Home

The biological success of humans owes more to enabling technologies than purely physical attributes.

We have survived successfully in the most hostile of environments, including – admittedly briefly – the near-vacuum of space, because of adapted behaviour and tools such as clothing and shelters. No matter how great the challenge or threat to our survival, we have so far been able to rise to it.

Computing has a lot to offer the species in respect of some of our greatest threats: in the immediate, epidemics of disease and recovery from the recession, and in the longer term, climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions.

Many homes now have computers that are as potent in all respects as those that sit on our desks at work. By working at home, we save the carbon cost of travel into work, reduce transport congestion, cut the cost of our employment overheads, and greatly reduce indiscriminate contact with strangers that is such a fertile medium for viral transmission.

Smaller businesses have wisely found home-working to be a valuable tool, but the larger the organisation, the greater the obstacles that have been found to stifle it. Despite official policies to encourage it in large corporations and Government departments, the number of staff allowed to use it seems to be falling, not rising.

The first, and most inexorable, hurdle is inevitably health and safety. With the consistent contrariness of an argumentative partner, no matter what good idea is proposed, absurd application of an authoritarian approach to health and safety can quickly render good ideas impossible.

(If this seems as ridiculous as it looks, browse this and this to have your mind further boggled.)

Before home working can be approved, a team of experts has to ensure that the one place where we are allowed free choice of furniture and decoration, conforms to a rigorous set of rules intended for the employer’s premises. If by some quirk of fate your taste in chairs and workstation design happens to be so dull as to fit the rigid template of heath and safety requirements, then the desire to work at home will quickly be blocked by concerns over security, privacy, or data loss.

It is no small wonder that services lag technology by a decade or three. Telemedicine, the remote diagnosis and management of medical conditions, has become incredibly easy with the wide availability of digital cameras, email, and webcams. But the overwhelmingly phone-based service of your local GP and hospitals seem oblivious to such advances, unlike backward and far-flung outposts of humanity such as rural Canada.

Despite Tony Blair’s speech over 15 years ago exhorting the NHS to embrace modern technology including the ‘information superhighway’, telemedicine, integrated electronic medical records, and other advances have run aground amid the sea of money washed over them. When you are ill and in need of medical care, it is still easiest to fight your way to the nearest A&E and queue interminably for the least efficient and most costly system for providing such care.

It took our ancestors 22 years to turn the telegraph into a useful commercial system (from 1839), 16 years to do the same with the telephone (1876), only 8 years for the transistor (1947), and 6 years for the mobile phone (1973).

But under the Health and Safety Act (1974) and Data Protection Act (1998), now-commonplace advances that could help us deal with real threats are slowly strangled while millions of our tax pounds are handed over to contractors, or spun out into oblivion.

Having reached our zenith, this lack of vision and deftness, this entrapment in a bureaucracy set to thwart survival, may yet prove the lethal trait for the human species.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 25 issue 13, 2009. It is remarkable how little these issues have changed since then: try getting your hospital specialist or GP to communicate by email, or book a healthcare appointment online!