What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I Grow Up (Pussycat Dolls song)

When I Grow Up (Pussycat Dolls song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After I filled in the questionnaire, the computer considered my future. After a short pause, the printer chugged into life and rattled out line after line of career suggestions on green and white piano paper. Once the clattering came to a halt, the careers officer ripped off the two feet or so of suggested vocations. As he checked the printout to make sure it was OK, he asked me what I thought I wanted to do.

As a young child, it was obvious. I wanted to be a train driver first. Then I decided that I would have much more fun as an astronaut. No, maybe a scientist or a spy. As I went through school, I dismissed such fanciful ideas and came to terms with the fact that I had no clue what I wanted to do in the future.

I scanned down the piano paper at the list of jobs. I could not see any common thread connecting them. They looked like a random list of careers plucked from a hat. Some of the selections made sense and I noted with some amusement that most of the fanciful posts I’d whimsied about as a small boy were present and correct – with the notable exception of spy.

The careers officer said to think about which entries on the list appealed and told me there was an upcoming careers evening where I could find out more. I went home baffled. How do you decide what you would like to do from a list of things you’ve never experienced.

During careers evening, I wandered from booth to booth to see what they had to say. A GP told me all about his job. You study hard for seven years and then you get to sit behind a desk whilst sick people visit you. Hmmm – no thanks. Someone told me about a career in education, but I didn’t really want to stay at school even if I would be on the other side of the desk. The only job that floated my boat was on offer by the navy, ironically enough.

Their offering was a life on the ocean waves as an engineering artificer. During a five-year apprenticeship, you learned about maintaining all the military technology they had at their disposal and all while sailing around the world. It sounded adventurous. I often think about how different my life would be if I chose to take that apprenticeship.

So what do I want to be when I grow up?  I’ll let you know closer to the time.

Wouldn’t we be better off without computers?

Panellists Peter Hitchens, Rt Hon Ed Balls MP,...

Panellists Peter Hitchens, Rt Hon Ed Balls MP, Rt Hon Theresa May, Baroness (Shirley) Williams of Crosby, and Benjamin Zephaniah, join host David Dimbleby for Question Time, filmed in Westminster Hall for the first time on 3 November 2011 (Photo credit: UK Parliament)

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.

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned...

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned mobile phones, defective mobile phones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.