Books: A Point of View: Helplessly Advanced |
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Helplessly Advanced : on clever machines

(S02E05, broadcast 20th and 22nd July 2007)

"New dogs and old tricks"

Stories on the inside pages of the newspapers can tell you a lot about a larger subject than the one they purport to be dealing with. I was reading a story recently about car theft. There was the usual stuff about cars being stolen, instantly supplied with stolen documentation, and sold back next day to the original dealer, or something like that. Not finding any kind of thief glamorous, even if he looks like George Clooney and steals all of Las Vegas, I was paying only vague attention until I got to a paragraph about a bunch of young American thieves who broke into a parked luxury car by night with the intention of driving it away.

They didn’t drive it anywhere because none of them knew how to work a manual gearbox, or stick shift as the Americans used to call it when such a thing was still manufactured. I imagine the three desperadoes were still sitting there cluelessly stirring the gear-stick when the police arrived, responding to complaints from neighbours that somebody was using an angle grinder in the car park.

It would have made a good comic scene in a frat-house movie, except that those movies, aimed as they are at hyper-hormonal teenagers, draw little of their revenue from people old enough to remember what a gearbox was like when it wasn’t automatic: when, that is, it didn’t do the whole thing for you. So there would be nobody to laugh, and the post-pubescent audience would drum their heels impatiently on the heads of the people in the row in front, waiting for the next scene when the frat brats fight to take a peek through the knot-hole in the wall of the girls’ washroom. Thus our path moves on irretrievably into technologically determined time, as Confucius said when one of his acolytes invented the pencil.

Then again, the current issue of the seriously intellectual Australian magazine Quadrant has just carried a disturbing article by a University of Western Australia mathematics teacher recounting how some of his pupils have emerged from the high-school system unscathed by any requirement to do simple mental arithmetic. Equipped with electronic calculators since the cradle, they enter university, and even penetrate as far as the second year of a mathematical subject, unable to multiply 8 by 4 without mechanical assistance. Asked to multiply 4 by 8, they complain about having been set two problems instead of one. Most of these unwitting victims of a permissive non-education will graduate, because there is no machinery by which they can fail, and the machinery which helps them to do their set tasks in arithmetic, the machine that does it all for them, will always be on hand.

Presumably when they move on to become air-traffic controllers or risk-analysts at the nuclear power plant they will still always have calculators in their pockets. But it’s daunting to think of the calculator getting stuck in an air-traffic controller’s pocket when he suddenly needs to figure out roughly how long it will take one blip on the radar screen to coincide with another. One of the many advantages of learning your tables by rote and being able to do mental arithmetic is that you know what order of answer you are after for any given question. If you buy eight dinner plates at four pounds each, the total outlay will be something like thirty pounds, but nothing like three pounds or three hundred pounds, and if the salesperson, staring dimly at the figure beeping up on her till, says the price is thirty-two thousand pounds, you’ll know that you should think twice — that’s two times once — before handing over your credit card.

But without the benefit conferred by a headful of thoroughly memorized relationships, the air-traffic controller will be lost, and eventually some of his pilots will get lost, not to mention their passengers. And if the pressure in the condenser pipe is rising by 4 psi every eight minutes and there are only 32 psi of tolerance left before structural failure, the man at the desk had better realize that he hasn’t got all day before he scrambles the reactor.

These are fantasy scenarios on my part, but Mike Alder, the sardonic mathematics teacher who wrote the article, thinks that the whole of modern society might soon come flickering and fizzing to a halt because the people who make and work the miracle machines can’t add up in their heads. He sounds at least as convincing a doomsayer as those who hold that we’ll end up under twenty feet of water dotted with the corpses of roasted polar bears.

Speaking of which, it almost happened to me on a recent rainy weekend. I was away from my office for most of it. On the Monday I came back to London from Wales in the back of a car. I’m used to being in the back because I don’t drive on the public roads owing to a nervous condition which other drivers contract when they see me coming. But the upside is that I can work. Reading and writing are what I do for a living, and while travelling as a passenger I can do both. I had an article to finish that day for a magazine in Chicago. Drafting the piece in my notebook with a biro, I got most of it done during the trip, which took about three and a half hours. As usual I spent almost no time reflecting that the same journey would have taken Jane Austen more than a week, and that covering the same distance was even slower before the invention of the horse. I took the speed for granted, and if we had been slowed up for an hour by the rain I would have thought that abnormal.

We weren’t. I got to my desk safely by early evening, and I sat down at my computer to begin the task of transforming the draft in my notebook into a document, which I could do the final work on before sending it off by e-mail to Chicago, where it would arrive at the speed of light before close of business in the mid-West. I pressed the button that lights up the screen and nothing happened. Strange, I thought. All the diodes are glowing correctly and I can even hear the thing hum. I poked around among the cables and sockets, testing with my fingertips to make sure everything was a tight fit. It was only then that I noticed the whole thing was wet. I looked up and saw that the rim of one of the recessed light fittings in the ceiling was stained with water. At this point a director of a frat-house comedy would have staged the scene differently. I would have found out that I had my hands in a lake of electricity when I lit up all over with crackling blue cobwebs and was blown backwards into the closet where my roommate was hiding with my naked girlfriend. What happened instead was a mental revelation, much harder to film. I realized that the technology was miles ahead of me. I barely knew how to switch the stricken monster off, and had no idea at all of how to fix it. I thought briefly of aiming my microwave oven at it.

During the rest of that week, before I left for a business visit to Australia, I slowly grasped that I was more helpless than I had ever thought. The hard-drive eventually got saved by my young friend Idris. His principal instrument of salvation was a hairdryer, which personally I thought only one step up from my microwave notion, but Idris knows how a computer works. Since I don’t really know how a hairdryer works, I needed this harsh reminder of just how irreversible the road has become. As the proprietor of a state-of-the-art, multimedia, money-losing website I’m in awe of the new technology, but I’m also in almost complete ignorance of it.

For day after nail-biting day I couldn’t send or receive e-mails. Finally I had to fly to Sydney with no clear idea of whom I was supposed to meet at the other end, because all my schedules were attached to e-mails I couldn’t read. Getting to Australia and back in roughly the time it took Magellan to leave harbour, I regained my office to find a new flood ready to hit my computer — all the e-mails that had piled up in cyberspace over the past fortnight. There were more than a hundred and fifty of them, practically all decorated with that little red exclamation mark that looks like the droppings of an angry sparrow.

Yes, I could have accessed them in my Sydney hotel, but I didn’t know how. I don’t know how to do anything the machine does and there’s a limit to how far I can go back down the one-way path. I can still write an article by hand, but do I really want to copy it onto a typewriter, and then mail the typescript, and then wait? I can’t go back to all that, any more than the young mathematicians can go back to doing arithmetic in their heads, or the young car-thieves can go back to treading on the clutch pedal before shifting the gear-stick, and then — this is the hard part, as I remember — letting the clutch pedal come up slowly while they steadily tread on the accelerator. All too primitive. So we let the machines do it, and more and more they make us feel powerful enough to forget how helpless we really are. Let’s call that a plus.


How young do you have to be before you feel that the latest model of the iPhone is not beyond you? You are probably already too old at the age of ten. Having received a new iPhone just before I was due to leave for New York, I looked forward to conducting all my Internet business on it while I was away. Then my secretary told me what it would cost to do so. After I shrieked at her to switch off those functions immediately, she told me that when I was abroad some of the functions, unless I knew exactly how to disable them, would go on racking up costs even if I didn’t use them. Finally I plugged the new phone into its charger — is that the right terminology? — and left it sitting there on the kitchen counter. When I got back from my trip I still left it there. Six months later it is still there. By now it has grown obsolete, after a career of never having been used. Probably I have always had the wrong temperament for advanced technology and should never have fooled with computers at all. Some of the brightest people in my generation won’t touch the things. Neither Les Murray nor Tom Stoppard composes on a computer or can even be contacted through one. It doesn’t seem to slow them down, but I suppose it would be the sheer speed of getting the donkeywork done that I would miss most if I had to go back to carbon paper and stamps.

Nevertheless, though I couldn’t do without the Internet, there are whole sections of it that I avoid from instinct. There is something wrong with Facebook and Twitter. People who think they are that interesting are usually to be avoided, unless they are Stephen Fry. And anyway, my own best sentences and phrases come after long consideration: the last thing I want to do is send out a text version of something I just thought of. Occasionally, when on stage, I think of something nifty on the spur of the moment, and the audience might even seem to enjoy it, but I would still like to keep it for a while before committing it to print. And print, where these machines are concerned, means for ever: unless you can arrange an incandescent death for your hard-drive in an atomic furnace, not even the ‘delete’ button will bury anything you write beyond retrieval. The computer’s insistence on committing the ephemeral to eternity is what makes it an instrument of the devil. And now the same applies to the telephone. The instinct of self-preservation should be enough to make us steer clear of every new breakthrough until it has been proved innocuous. Until then, wiser to assume that a private phone call plugs straight through to a universal broadcasting system and an ineradicable archive. Wiser, indeed, not to say anything to anyone by any means, and live as the Romans did under Tiberius.