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We do not live in the age of technological revolution


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#1 Simon Jenkins

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Posted 25 January 2007 - 01:39 PM

I rise each morning, shave with soap and razor, don clothes of cotton and wool, read a paper, drink a coffee heated by gas or electricity and go to work with the aid of petrol and an internal combustion engine. At a centrally heated office I type on a Qwerty keyboard; I might later visit a pub or theatre. Most people I know do likewise.

Not one of these activities has altered qualitatively over the past century, while in the previous hundred years they altered beyond recognition. We do not live in the age of technological revolution. We live in the age of technological stasis, but do not realise it. We watch the future and have stopped watching the present.

When I finish reading most books, they hang around on shelves, prop up tables or go to friends. David Edgerton's The Shock of the Old is a book I can use. I can take it in two hands and bash it over the heads of every techno-nerd, computer geek and neophiliac futurologist I meet. Edgerton is a historian of science at Imperial College in London and must be a brave man. He has taken each one of his colleagues' vested interests and stamped on it with hobnailed boots.

No, research and development do not equate with economic progress. No, the computer is not a stunning technological advance, just an extension of electronic communication as known for over a century. No, the internet has not transformed most people's lives, just helped them do faster what they did before. No, weapons technology has not transformed warfare, merely wasted stupefying sums of money while soldiers win or lose by firing rifles.

Technological innovation is always hyped by those lobbying for money, usually from government. But, says Edgerton, if we only attended to ends rather than means we would waste less and get more right. Scientists never feed into their equations the opportunity cost of their successes, let alone the cost of their failures. Where now are such "life-changing revolutions" as supersonic travel, manned moon flight, coal hydrogenation, system-built housing, brain lobotomy, drip-dry shirts and electric knives? How come more goods travel by ship than ever? How come the fastest-growing domestic industry is housework and do-it-yourself?

To Edgerton the thesis that civilisation must innovate or die is rubbish. Nations are not sharks that must move to breathe. Yet we are so dazzled by newness as to lose the power of scepticism, indeed of reason itself. The result is a grotesque overselling of the new and neglect of what is tried and tested.

There is nothing recent in this phenomenon. Steam power was hugely expensive in resources and manpower and for most of its life probably less efficient than horse power. At sea it wiped out sail long before it could economically and safely replace it. On land it required even more horses (to supply coal and service its terminals) than before. Even today there would probably be less traffic on roads if outrageously uneconomic trains did not exist - and so did not divert car journeys to stations - though nobody will believe it.

What Edgerton calls "techno- nationalism" is regularly proclaimed by politicians as vital to domestic economies as they pour money into government research. There is no evidence of any need for this. Global technology transfer is virtually free. What impedes its growth is not lack of invention but government restriction on free trade. Shrewd countries "borrow" technology, as did Japan after the war and the tiger economies from America in the 1990s.

The most remarkable feature of Edgerton's book is his emphasis on the durability of past innovations. Today the fastest-selling cooker in Britain is the Aga. The fastest-selling home investment is the flatpack, made with cheap foreign labour and transport and assembled by the user.

Most attics and garages are stuffed with kit for which there was no sensible use, from exercise bicycles to fondue machines. Middle-class women probably do more manual labour than in the 19th century, assisted by such old technology as the washing machine and vacuum cleaner. Small wonder they still consume those ancient standbys, alcohol, nicotine, cannabis and opium.

Of course, the computer has radically speeded communication. But for the overwhelming bulk of users (still only half of Britons and a tiny fraction of the globe) it merely supplements the post and the telephone. Most people send emails back and forth twice a day, roughly the same exchange as the Victorian letter post achieved. Amazon and eBay have replicated but not replaced the retail market. Television, 80 years old, and radio have improved but not changed over time. Both were essentially Victorian innovations.

The greatest techno-dazzle involves flying. The glamour of defying gravity created a global Icarus complex. Air forces have won over every generation of 20th-century politician, yet have never delivered. They have killed civilians and wrecked property but not won wars. More serious, the cost of new planes so overwhelms budgets as to leave land troops underequipped - as is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ministers are putty in the hands of airborne weapons suppliers. Yet any analysis of the past half-century will show the rifle, the mortar and (in Africa) the machete are the tools of success. The technology of war, supposed galvaniser of innovation, has barely changed in a hundred years. Indeed by replacing battlefront bravery with stand-off cowardice, air innovation could be said to contribute to defeat.

The fastest-rising aid to mobility is another Victorian invention, the car, dependent on internal carbon combustion. Flights are trivial, a minuscule percentage in any sense necessary. Planes are used overwhelmingly for holidays, business and perks. Yet lobbyists sell planes (and airports) as "economically vital" to the nation.

This neophilia at least has its piquant moments. HG Wells wrote in The Shape of Things to Come (in 1937) that "airmen will bring peace and civilisation to a war-devastated world". He forecast that within 30 years the world would agree a new global order based on the hub of intercontinental aviation. And where was that hub? His answer was Basra.

There is still a hotel in Basra decorated with murals of glorious pilots ushering in this brave new world. It is (or was on my last visit) a British officers' club. Every night mortars try to wipe it off the face of the earth in a nasty Victorian-style war.

http://www.guardian....1997286,00.html

#2 John Simkin

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Posted 25 January 2007 - 01:43 PM

No, the computer is not a stunning technological advance, just an extension of electronic communication as known for over a century. No, the internet has not transformed most people's lives, just helped them do faster what they did before.


It is a mistake to think that the computer has just increased the speed of communication. This is a common view in the mainstream media. In the late 1990s I was paid to advise publishers of books and newspapers on how the internet would change their industries. They invariably rejected my advice. The main problem was that they did not want to hear what I was saying. They could not cope with the amount of change that was necessary. It is therefore new media companies that are making full use of the revolutionary implications of this new technology.

The fact that I am adding my comments to your article illustrates one example of how the web has changed communications. Of course, this does not mean you will read my comments, after all, it is extremely rare for Guardian columnists to reply to threads like this. One cannot be blamed for thinking that the Guardian uses this technology to suggest interactivity with its readers. It is like the BBC asking for its viewers to text in their comments to Question Time. Why should people bother? Who will read these comments? Will they be influenced by them?

The Guardian and the BBC represent the old media approach to the internet revolution. I suggest that people like Simon Jenkins should check out media sites such as AlterNet.

http://www.alternet.org/

It is not surprising that surveys show that young people are more willing to believe news that they read on the web than that coming from traditional media. We all know that the content of mainstream newspapers is influenced by multimillionaire owners and their advertisers. Even the “liberal” Guardian will spend little time campaigning for higher taxes on the rich.

Let us take a recent example in how the internet has revolutionised communication. Last night I received an email from Google that E. Howard Hunt had died. (Google let me know on a daily basis any article that is published on the CIA). I then did a search to discover how the American press was reporting his death. Virtually every newspaper carried the same article provided by the AP.

These newspapers reported that in June, 1995, Hunt filed for bankruptcy protection from his creditors. They did not explain why he was so short of money.

Before the internet we would have to accept the version of events being portrayed by the media. Now we can use search-engines to find out about characters like E. Howard Hunt. A search will bring you to this site (1st or 2nd in the list in most search-engines):

http://www.spartacus...uk/JFKhuntH.htm

This site will explain in detail why E. Howard Hunt went bankrupt in 1995. In August, 1978, Victor Marchetti published an article about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the liberty Lobby newspaper, Spotlight. In the article Marchetti argued that the House Special Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) had obtained a 1966 CIA memo that revealed that E. Howard Hunt, Frank Sturgis and Gerry Patrick Hemming had been involved in the plot to kill Kennedy. Marchetti's article also included a story that Marita Lorenz had provided information on this plot. Later that month Joseph Trento and Jacquie Powers wrote a similar story for the Sunday News Journal.

The HSCA did not publish this CIA memo linking its agents to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Hunt now decided to take legal action against the Liberty Lobby and in December, 1981, he was awarded $650,000 in damages. Liberty Lobby appealed to the United States Court of Appeals. It was claimed that Hunt's attorney, Ellis Rubin, had offered a clearly erroneous instruction as to the law of defamation. The three-judge panel agreed and the case was retried. This time Mark Lane defended the Liberty Lobby against Hunt's action.

Lane eventually discovered Marchetti’s sources. The main source was William Corson. It also emerged that Marchetti had also consulted James Angleton and Alan J. Weberman before publishing the article. As a result of obtaining of getting depositions from David Atlee Phillips, Richard Helms, G. Gordon Liddy, Stansfield Turner and Marita Lorenz, plus a skillful cross-examination by Lane of Hunt, the jury decided in January, 1995, that Marchetti had not been guilty of libel when he suggested that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated by people working for the CIA. It was this virtually unreported court case that resulted in Hunt’s bankruptcy.

The newspapers mentioned that Hunt’s memoirs were to be published in March, 2007. They did not say what Hunt will argue in the book. It includes a claim that Lyndon Baines Johnson might have been involved in ordering the assassination of John F. Kennedy. "Having Kennedy liquidated, thus elevating himself to the presidency without having to work for it himself, could have been a very tempting and logical move on Johnson's part. LBJ had the money and the connections to manipulate the scenario in Dallas and is on record as having convinced JFK to make the appearance in the first place. He further tried unsuccessfully to engineer the passengers of each vehicle, trying to get his good buddy, Gov. (John) Connolly, to ride with him instead of in JFK's car - where... he would have been out of danger."

Hunt suggests that senior CIA official, William K. Harvey could have been involved in the plot to kill Kennedy: "Harvey was a ruthless man who was not satisfied with his position in the CIA and its government salary... He definitely had dreams of becoming (CIA director) and LBJ could do that for him if he were president.... (LBJ) would have used Harvey because he was available and corrupt."

The newspapers also reported that Hunt’s wife Dorothy had died in a plane accident on 8th December, 1972. Also on the plane with Dorothy Hunt was Michelle Clark, a journalist working for CBS. According to Sherman Skolnick, Clark was working on a story on the Watergate case: "Ms Clark had lots of insight into the bugging and cover-up through her boyfriend, a CIA operative."

As Lalo J. Gastriani, pointed out in the Fair Play Magazine (November, 1994):

It was at 2:29 p.m. on Friday, December 8, 1972, during the height of the Watergate scandal that United Airlines flight 553 crashed just outside of Chicago during a landing approach to Midway Airport. Initial reports indicated that the plane had some sort of engine trouble when it descended from the clouds. But the odd thing about this crash is what happened after the plane went down. Witnesses living in the working-class neighborhood in which the plane crashed said that moments after impact, a battalion of plainclothes operatives in unmarked cars parked on side streets pounced on the crash-site. These so-called 'FBI types' took control of the scene and immediately began sifting through the wreckage looking for something. At least one survivor recognized a "rescue worker" - clad in overalls sifting through wreckage - as an operative of the CIA.

One day after the crash, the Whitehouse head of Nixon's "plumber's" outfit - Egil Krogh, Jr. - was made undersecretary of transportation, a position that put him in a direct position to oversee the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Agency which are both authorized by law to investigate airline crashes. Krogh would later be convicted of complicity in the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg's Psychiatrist's office along with Hunt, Liddy and a small cast of CIA-trained and retained Cuban black-bag specialists...

Ostensibly traveling with Mrs. Hunt on flight 553 was CBS news corespondent Michelle Clark who, rumor had it, had learned from her sources that the Hunts were about to spill the proverbial beans regarding the Nixon whitehouse and its involvement in the Watergate burglary; Clark also died in the crash.

A large sum of money (between $10,000 and $100,000) was found amid the wreckage in the possession of Mrs. Hunt. It was during this time that Dorothy Hunt was traveling around the country paying off operatives and witnesses in the Watergate operation with money her husband had extorted from Nixon via his counsel, John Dean. Hunt had threatened Nixon and Dean with exposing the nature of all the sordid deeds he had done.

Could it be that the fuel for Hunt's blackmail of the president had little to do with the so-called "third-rate burglary" of the Democratic headquarters? Could it have had more to do with the fate of John F. Kennedy and of Nixon's awareness of who was really behind the planning and deployment of his demise? In the Watergate tapes, Nixon displays a malignant paranoia to his chief-of-staff, H. R. Haldeman, concerning E. Howard Hunt and the Bay of Pigs operation. He decides to use this paranoia to force the CIA to help cover up the Watergate affair.


#3 John Simkin

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Posted 27 January 2007 - 06:53 AM

See this interesting article of how these three young men created a film that has been seen by an estimated 50 million people. Over 4 million have seen it at Google Video alone.

http://arts.guardian...1998179,00.html

This is an example of how the world of media is undergoing a revolution. When I say revolution I mean revolution. A power shift is taking place in the world of communication. The dominant ideology is under threat.

#4 Guest_Gary Loughran_*

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Posted 27 January 2007 - 07:18 PM

Good points John. However, consider where youtube for example has ended up, yes that's right our friends Google. Slowly but surely the mainstream, internet, media is being purchased and controlled by the very same (or as close as) people who ultimately control the broadcast and newspaper media.

I suspect that enough control and influence will be won so as to permit Mockingbirdesque internet controls.

Various Internet 2 conferences have been happening and are continuing to. These will, I believe, ask for and get, internet restrictions, infrastructure changes and undoubtedly reduce and centralise the number of main server controllers connected to the internet.

Maybe not for some time, but I wouldn't be surprised if any new internet page will eventually have to be submitted past a 'big brother' group of content editors. A logical extension of what Wikipedia does.

Furthermore if you were a huge intelligence agency the internet and www would have been like manna from heaven, would it not? Those boys at DARPA certainly knew what they were doing. But then I'm a conspiracy theorist afterall???!???!?!

#5 John Simkin

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Posted 28 January 2007 - 10:04 AM

Good points John. However, consider where youtube for example has ended up, yes that's right our friends Google. Slowly but surely the mainstream, internet, media is being purchased and controlled by the very same (or as close as) people who ultimately control the broadcast and newspaper media.

I suspect that enough control and influence will be won so as to permit Mockingbirdesque internet controls.

Various Internet 2 conferences have been happening and are continuing to. These will, I believe, ask for and get, internet restrictions, infrastructure changes and undoubtedly reduce and centralise the number of main server controllers connected to the internet.

Maybe not for some time, but I wouldn't be surprised if any new internet page will eventually have to be submitted past a 'big brother' group of content editors. A logical extension of what Wikipedia does.

Furthermore if you were a huge intelligence agency the internet and www would have been like manna from heaven, would it not? Those boys at DARPA certainly knew what they were doing. But then I'm a conspiracy theorist afterall???!???!?!


You are undoubtedly right that the ruling elite will try very hard to get control of the web. However, I suspect that they will fail. The web has meant that power has been redistributed in such a way that it is virtually impossible to get it back under control. Attempts will be made via Google to control the distribution of information. Google has to tread very carefully. Once they loose their reputation for providing objective searches, they will find it impossible to get it back. This will be a financial disaster. Capitalism only understands the language of profits.

The anti-establishment media on the web is very well organized. It is linked together, this is one of the reasons it does so well in search-engines. I see the New York Times often comes first as a paid link when doing searches at Google. I expect we will see more of that on the web. However, I do not go to paid links. I expect a lot of people act in the same way. No doubt Google might remove information about it being a paid for link. If it does go down this route, it will again lose credibility.

What we do need is a “Google” and “Wikipedia” that cannot be corrupted and provides real competition to these organizations. I expect this will happen over the next couple of years.

#6 Jackie Ashley

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Posted 30 January 2007 - 04:57 PM

Davos in Switzerland is where the great ones of the world gather to sniff each other's aftershave. There you find more ego-stroking, back-scratching and mutual grooming than in the average colony of jungle apes. So when politicians, editors and tycoons excitedly echo one another in hailing the new democracy of the internet, and promise that it is upending the old order, a little scepticism is required. If they really thought they were about to be overthrown by bloggers, would they sound quite so cheerful about it?

Sitting next to Rupert Murdoch, whose global power depends on old-fashioned newspapers, television stations and cinema, Gordon Brown, whose power in Britain depends on old-fashioned voters, a party structure and parliamentarians, declared politics was now in the slow lane of the super-information highway, and would have to wise up.

"A few years ago the debate was about whether the media controlled politicians or whether politicians controlled the media. Now it is about how we are all responding to the explosive power of citizens, consumers and bloggers. The new focus on the environment is the result of that. The Make Poverty History campaign was the result of that. Citizens are flexing their muscles," he said.

Over in the US, the Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton is promising to campaign for the presidency largely on the internet. David Cameron gained huge coverage in the old-world newspaper and TV media for his weblog. Every serious newspaper has dived into the internet age, even though it is not yet clear how they will raise the revenue they need as their print existence shrivels. Much of this is merely practical, the result of a technological shift nobody can halt or resist. But it comes with a grand-sounding manifesto about bringing in a new age of democracy, and that's really what needs to be questioned.

For instance, though it is true you can find out lots about global warming by Googling away, it not clear that our new environmental politics are much to do with the internet at all. They are clearly to do with hard work by serious scientists - and the campaigning of groups - which has persuaded politicians as it has been disseminated to the rest of us, including through films such as Al Gore's, books, and newspaper coverage for about a decade. Had the internet not existed, would we be worried about global warming, and would politics be responding to that? Of course.

Make Poverty History was an alliance which brilliantly used the internet. But even it depended on the old-style glamour of rock stars, the old-fashioned force of mass demonstrations, and the behind-the-scene backing of old-world politicians such as Brown. The super-information highway helped, but the cause of Africa pre-dated it, as the original Live Aid campaign, and the BBC news films by Michael Buerk, demonstrated. The net helped. It didn't create.

So what? Does it matter that politicians are getting a bit over-excited about the web? This is, after all, a wonderful new way of spreading ideas, information and argument. It has drawn plenty of people into political debate who would never have gone to a meeting, or even bothered to write a letter to a newspaper. It has allowed people who might never have visited a library to search out facts for themselves. Aren't citizens "flexing their muscles" as Brown says?

Well, yes and no. Some are. But the first thing to remember is that a large slice of the population is completely missing from this brave new internet world. According to the latest official figures, just under 14m households have internet access, or around 57%. This means 43% don't. And we know who they are - generally speaking, the poor and the old. There is also a clear geographical bias, with the south-east of England having 66% household use of the web, against lower figures in the north, falling to just 48% in Scotland.

That, though, is just the beginning. The vast majority of people using the internet are using it to communicate, look up friends, visit porn sites, play games or shop. The politically enfranchised, active internet community is very small indeed. If Guardian sites are any guide, bloggers tend to be disproportionately young, male, angry and rightwing. Busy parents, people working long hours and pensioners are rather less likely to be flexing their muscles by blogging or searching political sites.

Again, you could protest: isn't that just like pre-internet politics? Labour party meetings were always dominated by people who happened to have the time to get to them and - because they had to be motivated too - by people who were more committed and angrier than the average voter.

This is exactly the point. In the old days, nobody really thought Labour party meetings, or Tory constituency associations, were representative of the country at large. A party which wanted to win power had to search out and try to convert the others. The danger is that we forget that old lesson, and naively think of the internet and the bloggers as the only voice of the people. In practical terms, this could privilege the better-off and younger against the interests of working-class and older Britain. Old media - television, radio, newspapers and even meetings - all remain essential, and the old arguments about who controls the media remain as valid as ever. If Murdoch is lauding the internet it is because he is buying it up, trying to recreate digitally the monopolistic power he sought all his life in the paper, ink and broadcast world.

There are other dangers too. We should be nervous when politicians start boasting, as they are, that the net allows them to bypass irritatingly persistent, difficult interviewers such as John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman. Obviously, they need to be scrutinised and cross-questioned by well-briefed interrogators, secure enough in their jobs to push the point. Democracy demands it. Putting up your own website, conducting online question-and-answer sessions, is a doddle by comparison. They allow the politician to control the terms of the exchange and never face a public challenge on questions they don't want to answer.

This is not a call to ignore the net or stop using the excellent research tools online. But we need to avoid easy hype. Most people are not cyber-citizens, they are living real, complicated lives in the real world. And that's where politicians should be too, rather than trying to surf off down the superhighway.

http://www.guardian....2000911,00.html




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