"INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: DAY THE WORLD TOOK OFF"
ROLL 172 (&173)
INTERVIEW WITH SIMON
QUESTION IN BACKGROUND
Over the last 10,000 years, two processes have been at work in social change. One is that nature has become increasingly absorbed by the art official, to such an extent that you can hardly tell the difference now between what is artificial and what is natural. So think of that as the transformation of nature in to a
system of machines. But in exactly the same period of time, machinery has become more and more vital, more organic. So just as nature has become mechanised, machinery has become endowed with the possibilities and capacities of life. It's those two processes, the organic machine and artificial nature, which have driven social and technical processes over the
last 10 millennia. Societies which have made progress, which have succeeded in terms of wealth and welfare, are exactly those societies that have been most successful at giving nature the properties of technology, and giving their technologies the properties of the organism. The future raises the certainty of crisis, I think, around where the boundaries between the
natural and the artificial, the organic and the mechanical are going to be drawn. Most of the great intellectual, political and economic battles, at the end of the period of 10,000 years that we're looking at, are at those boundaries between what nature can do and what the mechanical can do, between the capacities of the organic, and the capacities of the artificial.
QUESTION IN BACKGROUND
A very good example of this is the astonishing development of bio technology in the last 50 years. If you went back to the period just after the end of the Second World War, in 1945, and tried to guess what would be the dominant science and technology of the 21st Century, overwhelmingly you would have put your money on the physical sciences, and on nuclear physics
in particular. It seemed to many that it was nuclear physics and electronics which had won the war for the alliance against Germany and Japan. But, in fact, in an astonishing and perhaps unpredictable way, it was the new alliance between computer electronics and genetics which characterised, not only the sciences, but also the economic technologies of the new, the 21st Century. And there,
precisely, is an area of potential struggle, where the very capacities of life itself in the name of genetic analysis and of the information model of life and of organic processes, it's there that the main promise, and perhaps the main threat of human human and future human advance is at - is at stake.
QUESTION IN BACKGROUND
So one way of thinking about what's happened in human society over the last 10,000 years, is to focus on agriculture, on the capacity of human societies to extract food and resources from nature so that they can survive and reproduce. And most of the major technological changes over that period focus precisely on the way in
which reliable knowledge can be applied to the management of natural resources in a profitable and renewable way. Now, on that long perspective, the key has turned out to be information, information which can be extracted from the natural world, and then reapplied to the natural world so that it can be recomposed and re-engineered. The first process, the
extraction of information from the natural order is above all analysis. It's the process by which highly complex organic natural structures can be broken down in to their elements, so that their ways of working can be understood. It's been well said that one only understands a system if one can build it. What that means is that once analytical knowledge has been generated, once the world
is understood as an information system, the world can then be recomposed, only better this time. That remaking of the world, the synthesis of the world goes hand in hand with the process of analysis, and it's that relationship between decomposition, the great disassembly lines of Western science and technology, and recomposition, the synthesis of
new materials, new chemicals, even new beings by selective breeding, it's that combination that I think holds the key to technical change, to the engineering of nature and the appearance of organic machines.
QUESTION IN BACKGROUND
I think the different pathways that different societies have taken through the systems of farming, of industry, of manufacture and of warfare, can partly be explained by different systems of information, different systems of organising information, extracting it from natural systems, distributing it through society, and then recomposing it as useful
tools for remaking the external natural environment. A very good way of mapping different societies is to map the often very uneven distribution of knowledge and information within those societies. So, for example, in highly stratified autocratic centralised societies, information is extremely
unequally distributed. Power and knowledge go together, as Francis Bacon said right at the start of the 17th Century, and that's been a theme really throughout human history. To know is to be able to act. So different kind of effective action involve different kinds of knowledge. Blockages to knowledge distribution often prevent the effective combination of
apparently highly contrasted, highly different systems of action. And social and technical progress and change often relies on rebuilding complex systems. What that means, in the end, is the rebuilding and re-engineering of systems of capacity and knowledge based on very, very separate social groups. Bringing social groups together means bringing the information,
knowledge and skill that those groups have together. Humans carry the knowledge they own. So that a way of explaining the different course of different societies through history is, first of all, to start mapping the way in which knowledge and information is distributed
in those societies, and then try and ask this key question, how easy is it for the barriers to knowledge distribution and knowledge recomposition, deliberately to be broken down and then reassembled to form new groups of experts, new artisans, new patterns of craft
skills, and in the end, therefore, new ways of re-engineering the world.
QUESTION IN BACKGROUND
What Western societies seem to be have been pretty good at, at least for the past 500 years, is very rapid and extremely flexible reorganisation of the knowledge system, so that even in comparatively hierarchical societies in the West, their very instability, the fact that they could rapidly collapse if there was a
massive imbalance between who knew how to do things, and who ran the society. That capacity for, as it were, extreme responsiveness to uneven distribution of knowledge and information, turned out in the end to be an enormous advantage. The dynamism of the West is very closely associated with the rapidity
and deficiency of knowledge flow, and that, in turn, I think, is associated in a fundamental way...
I think if you're trying to explain what gave the West its advantages in industrial development and the rapidity of social change, the way in which knowledge is managed in Western societies holds one of the keys. In very hierarchical societies knowledge is often concentrated in a few places, it doesn't flow
very easily, and society therefore becomes rigid and relatively inflexible. You think, for example, about Western ship designs. A key innovation in the West was the introduction of paper in to the shipyards. By drawing out ship designs on paper, it was possible to bring together in the same place people from very
different parts of society, actively to debate improvements in ship design and ways of making better ships. Because in that space, that new space of the 1500s, the drawing office, you can suddenly bring together designers, patrons, administrators, financiers, members of the government and people from the shipyards, so rendering flexible the pattern of knowledge
distribution. People with know how from different parts of society being brought together in a new space. And that new space is inconceivable without simply drawing ship designs on to paper and providing a place where those designs can be discussed. Another extremely good example of the way in which the distribution and ownership of knowledge becomes
flexible and therefore allows rather rapid social change, is in the extraordinary improvement in the design and manufacture of clocks at the end of the 18th Century, at the period of the solution of the problem of longitude, whereby breaking down the production of glorious but expensive and time consuming
time pieces, in to simple unit tasks, which can then be performed by a very large number of people brought together in a single workshop, you accelerate the production of reliable chronometers, and, indeed, you accelerate the rate of transport across the world in the European imperial system. So, almost wherever you look in the European system of trade,
finance and commerce, right through the last 500, 1000 years, the distribution and accumulation of acknowledge is accelerated by relatively simple devices which create spaces where knowledge and skill can be brought together, and, by then, exploiting those institutions ruthlessly to extract profit and advantage from even the most subtle piece of
analysis of production processes. That, I think, holds part of the key to the great advantage of the West.
QUESTION IN BACKGROUND
Over the last 10 millennia, machinery has been introduced in industrialising societies to take over burdensome tasks. That's the great contrast between industrial and industrious societies. Now, how is that process working, exactly? What's at stake there is the identification of a particular set of skills,
which it's claimed can be mechanised, so that machines increasingly embody more and more complex skills which, up 'til then, it had been believed, only humans could perform. So that, for example, at the end of the Middle Ages, one starts to see the mechanisation of processes, which it was widely supposed you needed to be
extraordinarily skilful to perform. One thinks, for example, of the introduction of mechanical printing, which takes over the tasks of the copiest and the scribe, which had been specifically human, involving a remarkable degree of skill. Automation, therefore, has at least this component to it, that it embodies
in the machine skills which had previously been human. Skills are not got rid of, they're redistributed. All machines can be thought of as roughly sophisticated versions of the sleeping policemen, in which instead of having a human being standing there telling cars to slow down, a piece of mechanism, in this case a bump in the road, does it for you. The skill
of slowing down the traffic doesn't disappear, it's shifted from humans to things. But, as that example shows us, the process of shifting agency, of shifting skill from human beings to machines and objects, is also a process by which, as it seems, humans become increasingly subordinate to the machinery which they've built. Instead of being able to negotiate with
the person standing by the side of the road telling you to slow down, you can't negotiate with a sleeping policeman, you simply have to slow down. Machines become more powerful. So the very same process which redistributes agency and skill from humans to machines is also, as it seems over the 10,000 years of human development, making humans slaves to their machinery. The liberation that machinery
promises is also a process of systematic subservience, and that double movement of liberation and subservience continues right through these ten millennia. We now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, reach a moment where capacities which it was unimaginable that machinery would be able to perform, can be
mechanised and at great speed, processes which two decades ago would have won you the Nobel Prize, and now performed by banks of computers which automatically perform tasks of extraordinary intellectual complexity. What's at stake there is a challenge to the intellect, a challenge to those small but significant
aspects of what it is to be human, which it's claimed machines not only can't do, in fact, but can't do in principle. That boundary between what is mechanisable, and what is human is constantly shifting in favour of the machine. But here's the rub, the movement of that boundary is the result of human decisions. It is social processes which constantly insist
on defining the place of that boundary. So the task before us, in a way, is to reorganise societies so that the decision about where the human machine boundary is to be drawn can be taken in a responsible, humane and democratic way. It's not inevitable, it's not pre-determined, and the history of the last 10,000 years shows us that. It shows us that the 02:19:43:02
unanticipated consequences of mechanisation are everywhere to be seen. That that balance between planning and surprise, between foresight and wonder, is perhaps the most important aspect of social and technical change.
So, at the start of the 21st Century, what's at stake is that those last bastions of what it is to be human, the intellect, seem to be being mechanised, and at an extraordinary rate, so that the machines around us here are performing tasks which two decades ago would have won you the Nobel Prize. It's that boundary then,
between the mechanical and the intellectual which is constantly shifting. But what's crucial, I think, to remember, is that where that boundary is, and the direction in which it's moving, is itself clearly the result of human decisions. The last 10,000 years of human history teach us, perhaps more than anything else, that the direction of social
development is full of intended consequences, and that balance between planning and surprise, between foresight and astonishment, is perhaps the most outstanding feature of the last 10 millennia of human history. In that sense, it's up to human societies to reorganise themselves constantly to take account of where
the machine, human boundary is to be drawn, and how that interaction is to be managed. And that is clearly a question of democratic accountability, and of how useful and reliable knowledge can fully be integrated in to the humane society which it can be used to sustain. Now, for the past 50 to 60 years, the dominant
sciences of the artificial have been, on the one hand, the sciences of computation, electronic computers, intelligent machines, cybernetics, and, on the other hand, the genetic sciences. The sciences of computation are the supreme examples of human ability to grant their machinery organic, vital, intellectual properties. So that as one of the pioneers of
computing wrote just after the end of the Second World War, to say the phrase intelligent machine is not to say something self contradictory, it's to say something that's self evidently real and around us. On the other hand, the extraordinary advances in molecular biology and genetics, the capacity to synthesis a range of new chemicals, of new organic materials, of new medical treatments, the capacity to analyse even the human genom in an array like this, which is essentially 02:23:18:06
nothing but an intelligent disassembly line for the DNA inside human beings, it's those two sciences, synthetic, as in the case of computers, analytic, as in the case of genetics, which in alliance with each other have come to dominate the new technologies, and indeed the new societies of the 21st Century.
It's for that reason that it's appropriate to be here in an institute devoted to the automatic rational analysis of the human genetic code, because it's the idea that human nature itself might be expressible as not much more than a kind of rather long machine code, which has come to dominate a whole host of images of what it is to be human, what human
nature is like, what can be synetheised, what can be engineered in to existence. Now, this is no doubt bred around it, the most apocalyptic prophecies of doom, and the most
visionary and millenarian prophecies of human progress. And it's quite hard to strike a balance between the optimisms and the pessimisms which have begun to surround that
alliance of computational engineering, and genetic analysis. But, instead, I think a slightly more sensible way of thinking about what's in play here, is to understand this as part and parcel of a millennium long process of this fascinating relationship between the granting of human capacity to machinery, and the struggle to use those machines to achieve
human purposes. And that struggle continues, and it's the only struggle worth fighting.
QUESTION IN BACKGROUND
About a 100 years ago, one of the smartest visionaries of the future, HG Wells, wrote, in almost his first story, "The Time Machine", a description of travelling far, far in to the human future. Because HG Wells was a student of Darwinian evolution, and up to date cutting edge physics, he reckoned that what - at his stage of society, was just a social division
between the ruling class and the working class, would inevitably develop in to a biological division, between an effete, not to say limp
wristed group of rulers who didn't have to do any work, and a large, rather cannibalistic group of workers who had become increasingly
bestial, and live in a world entirely dominated by electrically driven engines, which they would worship as though they were their gods. Now, that idea that what is social will evolve in to a great biological difference, is old. It's about as old as industrial society itself. I think that idea should be treated with an extraordinary amount of scepticism, for this
reason, apart from all the others. The history of the last 10,000 years is a history of extreme uneven development. Different societies on this planet have taken extraordinarily different paths. Sometimes their rate of social change has been highly rapid, and then, for centuries, stasis. Instead, I think of seeing that long history as a single path along the Yellow Brick Road from primitive hunter gatherers to advanced and
sophisticated industrial human beings, one should rather see it as a complicated network of .... paths, with decision after decision being made, and in different ways by different societies at different times. So projecting a future from a world, which even now, at the start of the 21st Century, is characterised by nothing more than extraordinary variation
between its different societies. Projecting in to the future from that, one should project, I think, reasonably, a continuing difference, despite the processes of globalisation, which are real, despite the fact that you can buy the same hamburgers and the same trainers in shops everywhere on the planet, to travel around the
world, to look at it from space, as HG Wells imagined, is to look at the storehouse of creation, with almost all possible social solutions to almost all possible problems in play simultaneously. So, at a futureological congress in even a 100 years from now, we will not be looking at a standardised uniform world in which an entirely new species of humanity has emerged to dominate the planet. We will
still be looking at competition, difference, contrast, choice and distinction, and thank goodness.
INTERVIEW WITH SIMON (Cont/d)
The two dominant sciences of the second half of the 20th Century turned out to be computer science, which was the science which enabled the construction of intelligent machinery, and genetics, which was the science that enabled the analysis, almost literally the pulling apart of human nature, in to what was increasingly understood as its basic essence,
its code. It was no coincidence, I think, that in the second half of the 20th Century, human nature, through genetics, became increasingly to be understood precisely in terms of machine code. It was why the very word code was used in molecular biology, to define the way in which DNA inside human genes worked. So this
room here is a sequencing factory, it's a disassembly line for taking apart samples of DNA and then working out the order of their components, and that order turns out to give you the fundamental clue to the way in which DNA acts..
That order turns out to be the basic clue to how DNA, genetic material work to dictate, as it said, what human nature is like. So these computers are working automatically to analyse order, sequence and define a kind of code on the basis of which human nature can then be
pictured. That's the basic claim of the alliance of computational and genetic sciences here at the start of the 21st Century. What matters about that project is that it represents one possible culmination of the long 10,000 year story of the attribution of intelligence to machines, and the analysis of the world in terms of the information that
gives it meaning. This is information science being used to turn the analysis of human nature in to factory work.
Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing?
Right through our story of the last 10,000 years, we keep on asking this question. If we go back a certain period of time, on which society would you bet? In a 1000AD would you have backed China, in 1500 AD, would you have backed Turkey? That story is always descriptive. What's involved there is an
effort to try and analyse the reasons behind really important social and technical change. If we start switching our attention to more ethnical, normative questions, the questions that really concern us, has this long march been worth it? I think one way of getting to answer to that is going to be to understand that this was not just one march, it was lots
of groups marching in lots of different directions. It's been said, and I think well, that scientists need hunter gatherers, more than hunter gatherers need scientists. The idea that once upon a time all the world, as John Lock, the great 17th Century philosopher once put it, all the world was America, everybody was a hunter gatherer. That idea I
think has served human beings well in telling a story that gives meaning to their collective memory. Once upon a time, we lived in Eden, or we lived in Barbarism, depending on how you think about a society of hunter and gatherers, and now we are fallen, we are corrupt, we are at war, we compete, and we exploit. That's one
version of the story. And the other version of the story is, now we have a dental plan, now we have penicillin, now we no longer suffer pain, our standard of living is higher than it's ever been before, and growth rates continue to be satisfactory. Those two visions that I've just satirised, the vision of Eden from which we fell, and the vision of barbarism
from which we rose, are essentially theological visions. They depend for their meaning on the idea of destiny and fate, and a purpose which human beings are somehow or other designed to discharge. If one gives up on that kind of religious view of human history, and instead starts to ask questions rather like what is to be done now, what are the contemporary issues
which can be managed and solved, I think those are better kinds of questions to ask. So rather than worrying about whether the whole 10,000 year story has been a story of the fall or the rise of the human race, I think a better set of questions is first of all to try and analyse the reasons for technical and social
change in terms of information distribution, in terms of social inequality and hierarchy, in terms of the flexibility of social organisations to internal prices and outside pressure, and then try to organise our world so that from here on it solves these problems in a better way than we've been doing so far.
The principle of the disassembly is that any complicated structure can be taken to bits and analysed, and used profitably, and that became very, very quickly the dominant motif of industrial society, not just in the way in which it organised the production of food and drink in slaughter houses, in breweries, in distilleries, in the ways in which textiles were made, or shoes or pottery, but I think,
above all, in the way it began to think about humans. Because as industrial society accelerated and intensified, the human components, the labour force were increasingly going to be treated as mechanical components. Perhaps philosophers, managers, entrepreneurs began to ask, we could treat human nature
this way? We could decompose humans in to their elementary parts, and then recompose them in a more productive and more efficient way. What we see in the 19th Century is mass campaigns to do exactly. Rationalise schooling, which takes children to bits, and then puts them back together again, only better. This time they'll be citizens. They
won't misbehave, they will behave profitably in an orderly and rational way. The prison, the factory and the school room, understandably, begin to resemble each other from the 1800s on. And the scientific projects of that period, which reach their culmination in the 20th Century share this analytic vision. You know what you can make, and to know human nature
would be to make better humans. CUT....