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.

Get me some elephants!

1916 photograph of an execution by firing squa...

1916 photograph of an execution by firing squad in Mexico. Caption: “Executing an Enemy – Just over the boundary such gruesome sights as this have been of frequent occurrence during the last few years and have kept alive the apprehensions of Americans on the border.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are two main reasons for society to punish someone for any transgression. Firstly to deter the offender and make then think twice about offending in future. Secondly, and usually in more severe cases, to make it impossible for the offender to recommit the offence in question. You would be forgiven for thinking that we have been punishing people for long enough to learn the most effective mechanisms for doing so. Unfortunately reoffending rates across the globe, at least for those where the punishment is not death, remain stubbornly high and the cost of undertaking most punishment methods has ballooned.

There is no real consensus with different countries punishing offenders in different ways. Although advances in forensic science have vastly improved detection rates, miscarriages of justice remain. Some of the most heinous crimes don’t have any witnesses other than the perpetrator and the victim and often it comes down to one persons word against another. Depending on the legal system, either the judge or the jury need to decide who’s telling the truth.

A very real barrier to justice is society’s attitude to human rights. In a recent European row, the European Court of Human Rights say that prisoners should be allowed the constitutional democratic right to vote. The UK government, together with most of the country disagreed. As a result, the tools available to society are fairly limited. Almost all punishment now involves either monetary punishment (in the form of fines), electronic tagging, denial of liberty through incarceration or the ultimate punishment; death. Roughly half of the UN nations still have the death penalty although the other half have either an unofficial or official policy of non enforcement.

Of course before human rights came into focus, there was a lot more scope and historical punishments show a great deal of imagination. I’m prepared to bet the reoffending rate was lower and the costs nowhere near as high. My personal favourite is the “brank” which in medieval times was reserved (mainly for women) to stop the offender from excessive talking and gossip. It consisted of an iron cage with a metal tab that held the tongue down suppressing speech.

If you were convicted of theft in ancient India, being trampled by an elephant was the favoured punishment. In ancient China, if you were found guilty of treason, you could look forward to a process called slow slicing which was probably as excruciating as it sounds. Given the choice, I’d take the elephant. In England, treason was punishable by being hung, drawn and quartered as immortalised by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. In you killed your father in ancient Rome, you could look forward to being blindfolded, placed in a sack with a serpent, an ape, a dog and a rooster before being thrown into the sea, regardless of whether daddy deserved it or not.

Most of these punishments make me squirm and I wouldn’t be happy to see them applied today, but I can’t help being frustrated by the blunt instruments wielded by our authorities. Added to this, the amount of money spent on punishment makes me angry. It costs nearly £50K (or $75K) to keep someone in prison for a year. Maybe we should get some elephants.