I love watching Prime Ministers questions or Question Time on the BBC, but by far the best debating chamber has always been the local hostelry. Last night, the motion brought by my right honourable friend Sidney of Norfolk was that the world would be a better place without computers. The motion was seconded by my right honourable friend Martin of Lockers. Not only that, but a recent comment on one of my blog posts raises the same motion.
So are they right or wrong?
Technology can be bewildering for many people. For people who do understand technology, the challenge is finding common ground on which to base an explanation. I was once at a conference where I was explaining how a new product worked. A member of the audience looked puzzled and asked me to clarify something I had just said. Taking a mental step backwards and thinking for a moment, I rephrased what I had just said in simpler terms and tried to build his understanding. He still looked puzzled, so I tried to make things simpler. After several iterations, he was none the wiser and I had run out of ways that I could explain the same thing.
So I told him that it worked by magic. With that, acceptance bloomed over his face and we moved on. This lack of common ground leads to suspicion, wariness and a general reluctance on the part of most people to learn. Technologists are guilty too. It’s all too tempting to just grab the mouse and fix whatever needs fixing in a fraction of the time it would take to describe the process.
None of this helps in my defence of the motion, but let me try and justify the existence of computers.
Firstly, without computers, the banking system would collapse (even with computers it might still collapse if Angela Merkel has her way). Any wealth that is held in any kind of account anywhere would disappear overnight. Trade and commerce would have to fall back to barter and the goods being bartered would very soon become very basic. Any currency or plastic cards might as well be discarded. Mobile phones would become little more than paperweights and cars would become roadside ornaments.
Energy would become a problem. Refineries would shut down as would oil terminals and power stations. Pharmaceuticals would soon dry up and before long, the only treatment that doctors and hospitals could supply would be sympathy.
Telecommunications would break down which would render the world ungovernable. Distribution networks would disappear, shops would empty and we would quickly revert to hunter-gathering status.
Automated systems providing water and sewerage would break down which would mean that clean water would be very hard to find. Disease would take hold and spread rapidly. Society would collapse into small tribes. There would be no law other than that enforced by local tribal leaders.
All this sounds rather extreme and like anything, technology can be used for good or ill. Without computers, there would be no nuclear weapons and the world’s carbon footprint would be slashed at a stroke. A large percentage of the population would no longer be baffled by remote controls and mobile phones.
Of course the most powerful argument is that without computers, the right honourable Sidney of Norfolk could not read this – although I doubt he’d agree.