Sunday, October 2, 2011

When People are not Other People

One of the major errors in the way people think about the world they live in is that they imagine there are slots available into which one person or another can be placed. A job is a pre-existing slot. A house is a slot. A position in an organization, even the organization itself, has somehow created itself and is waiting for someone to fill it. A wage, therefore, likewise. And so they conceive that a sum of money is sitting there waiting for someone to earn it. From there to the misunderstandings behind rabid socialism is a short step. I’m poor because someone else is rich, they say. More likely you aren’t poorer still because someone else is wealthy enough to pay you. Immigrants are not taking our jobs. In Spain, at least, they are doing the jobs that no one else wants to do. Time and again you hear, ‘I had to get a Rumanian/South American because I couldn’t find a ‘nacional’ who’d work properly for what I can pay.’ Children, the sick and the elderly are looked after by South Americans, bars and restaurants are staffed by Eastern Europeans, houses are cleaned by Moroccans, the corner shops that never seem to close, ever, are run by Chinese.

If Fleming hadn’t discovered penicillin, if Berners-Lee hadn’t created the protocols which make the Internet work, if Bill Gates hadn’t decided to get stinking rich by making cheap software, if Freddy Laker hadn’t taken on the state airline monopoly, if Stephenson hadn’t come up with the rocket, if Lyndon Johnson hadn’t decided to keep Kennedy’s boastful promise about going to the moon, if Margaret Thatcher hadn’t broken the more fascistic trade unions, if Norman Borlaug hadn’t improved crop yields manifold, the world would not be the place it is. These things did not have to happen when they did. There was not someone else waiting behind these people to do it if they didn’t.*

Tax the rich, they say. We already do. If they shared all the money we’d all be better off, they say. Yes, for five minutes. Then there’d be no money left to share. Stop people getting rich and we all go short. It has been tried, you know. Money doesn't pre-exist either, nor does wealth. They are not sitting about waiting to be distributed. They have to be created. Not everyone knows how to create them, and those that do are often not allowed to.

*Unlike the case of our rulers. Behind every MP, every head of government, every senior union and civil service boss there are thirty men and women with knives up their sleeves who could do the same job. One test of those who matter is they can’t be replaced.


Vincent said...

I agree with most of what you have written, but your sentence ending "the world would not be the place it is" has given me pause for thought.

I wouldn't at all mind a world without all of those things you list: all apart from Fleming & penicillin. In 1949, when I was not yet seven years old, my right leg was saved from amputation by a penicillin drip, when the NHS had just started, and penicillin had recently become available for general use in hospitals.

I also don't quite agree when you say that there was not someone else waiting behind these people to do it. Many of the great inventions were simultaneously discovered in different countries or by different researchers, leading to disputes as to who was the real pioneer.

For example, the light bulb, television.

CIngram said...

Well, my point was that the world would be different, in that things didn't have to turn out the way they did, but I think I would defend all of those things as causing change for the better (with the exception of the moon landings). Extremely cheap communication and travel, vastly more efficient food production, freedom from the tyranny of Arthur Scargill and co, are more or less unmixed blessings.

I agree that the final development of a revolutionary product results from the work of many people and the linking of many ideas, much as we like to associate a single name to each, but the point stands that the links in the chain, and the insight that linked them up, need not have existed then or later.

It's always surprised me that the bicycle wasn't invented much earlier, centuries earlier than it was. Something to do with ball bearings, vulcanized and rutted paths, I suppose, but the basic idea would have worked long before it was finally though of.

Vincent said...

Your last paragraph reminds me of James Burke who used to present "Tomorrow's World" for BBC TV and then got involved with his big idea "Connections" - see

I am not directly familiar with that body of work, but I met him in 77 or 78 when he presented prizes in an essay competition "Software in the Nineties" & I was one of the recipients.

What he traced through each invention was the chain of events that brought about change. In each case there were many antecedents, without which the invention would have not been possible.

Leonardo da Vinci and Charles Babbage are notable examples of those who had ideas which couldn't be exploited because the technology wasn't available.

James Higham said...

If Gordon Brown had not sold the gold and stolen the pensions ...

CIngram said...


Did your essay turn out to be prescient. It would be great to think that you conceived the 90's back in 1977.


If Mrs Hickory had not had too much to drink one night... The world would also be a very slightly different place.

Vincent said...

I'm wondering what happened when Mrs Hickory had too much to drink that night, but don't expect you to tell.

As for the essay, I can't remember much about it and didn't keep a copy. But I do remember talking quite a bit about the possibilities of linking computers together and creating a kind of community. It was a few years before the advent of the IBM PC, but there were various microcomputers, otherwise known as personal computers, around, for hobbyist and business use. (The favoured operating system was called CP/M. MSDOS, Bill Gates' first claim to fame, was not as good, apparently.) The use of modems to connect computers together via telephone lines was well-established.

I wrote idealistically about how this community of computer users talking to one another would impact on democracy. Users could vote on issues and so on. TCP/IP, now called the Internet, was already well established in 1977, but I didn't know much about it.

The big thing would have been to predict the World-Wide Web. I suppose my essay implied some mechanism like that, but it wasn't technically oriented, even though the competition was organised by Computer Weekly, and I suppose my essay appeared therein.

But the essay was constrained by its title, "Software in the Nineties". Perhaps some of it was about software being in ordinary devices like telephones, or washing machines, but I can't remember. Memory (RAM) was still not cheap, though it was very much cheaper than when I started in the industry in 1965. Then, the mainframe computer relied upon by Birmingham Corporation for administrative tasks had 200 kilobytes of RAM, in the form of "core store" (ferrite rings hand-threaded on to a matrix of wires).

My new computer, acquired the other day with 4 gigabytes, has 5 million times more RAM than that.

I think the answer to your question is "not notably prescient"!

Vincent said...

I see that Computer Weekly donated its 44-year Archive to the National Museum of Computing, and I've written to the curator asking to view. If I can photocopy the essay I'll put it up on my blog for the world to see how bad it was.

CIngram said...

Well, she probably wouldn't be Mrs Hickory, and the world, and I, would be very slightly different. Very different indeed, in my case.

It's fascinating to hear how people involved in the industry imagined the future to be. Many more things are now theoretically possible, or are being designed, than most of us could imagine. Many people know what the world of tomorrrow will look like. I understand that HG Wells did a lot of talking to scientists and inventors, and many of the predictions he made about the technology of the future were not so much a product of his imagination as the result of inside knowledge.

I look forward to reading your eassy if you ever recover it.