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There's no turning back the tide of technological 'advancement'

martin pawley

More than a century after the coming of water, electricity and telephone utilities, the Coca-Cola company is to press ahead with its plan for mixing carbonated water with Coke's secret syrup and piping it to houses and apartments.

A sealed consumer box will do the mixing and, next to hot and cold in every kitchen, there could soon be a 'Coke tap'. Pubs and McDonald's outlets have been mixing their own for years, but 'district Coking' is not the only thing in the pipeline. The company has also funded an unidentified 'European innovations unit' to move into town planning by designing a prototype public 'Coke space', a lubricated successor to the bus shelter where teenagers hang out.

Challenging in a different way is the news that, notwithstanding fears about their long-term impact, genetically modified crops are spreading at such a rate that they can no longer be avoided by even the most determined consumer. More than 40 million hectares of the world's most fertile farm land were planted with GM crops in 2000, about 25 times more than in 1996. Wind-blown pollen, mingled seeds and black market planting have further extended their use. Thus, while scientists and pressure groups argue about the safety of genetic modification, its use in food production spreads uncontrolled around them. At present 90 per cent of the world's corn and soya bean exports come from the US, Brazil and Argentina, all countries that encourage GM agriculture. As a result, it is now impossible for importing countries opposing GM crops to find sufficient non-GM alternatives.

What is the connection between GM crops and architecture? Analogy. The GM story is a perfect demonstration of how technological innovation works; why it can seldom be resisted, and why it ceases to be a threat only by becoming indispensable. For GM crops we could substitute airbags, mobile telephones, Microsoft Windows, 'Planar' glazing, geodesic domes, reinforced concrete and steel frame buildings.All followed the same route.

More directly architectural was the news that Britain's black economy has reached record levels.

More than £124 billion of goods and services - about 13 per cent of the economy compared with 2 per cent in 1970 - will be bought this year without being declared to the tax man. The main component of our shadow economy is, guess what, the construction industry, which accounts for 35 per cent of the total and is expected not to account for £43.5 billion in 2001. All architects no doubt have their own anecdotal evidence one way or the other.

Then there are growing postal problems. In this country they take the form of an increasing number of wildcat strikes, and an increase in delays and losses. In the US, the impact of electronic mail has been more direct, with the US postal service facing financial disaster in the shape of a deficit of $3 billion (£2.3 billion).A 90-day cost-cutting study has proposed ending Saturday deliveries and shutting down some of the 38,000 US post offices. Postal workers blame email for the collapse of revenue but also say that the volume of mail from newspaper and magazine publishers, the banking industry and other large-scale commercial users is so big that cutting out Saturday deliveries will only make the Monday delivery task impossible.

Clearly, new electronic systems will one day replace the manual delivery of newspapers, magazines and like items. Then the letterbox will go the way of the telephone box - production of which has just ceased after 117 years - and become just another milestone on the road to ephemeralisation like every other product at the mercy of technological evolution.

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