Tuesday 29 December 2009

Peering into our mediaeval future

Analysing the past is a lot simpler than predicting the future. That is why historians are, on the whole, more reliable authorities than clairvoyants.

While history was always my favourite subject at school, I was also an avid viewer of Tomorrow’s World and am pretty sure that we were all supposed to be travelling in flying cars by now, wearing silver foil instead of tweed or denim, and subsisting on vitamin pills.

I do not recall anyone warning me, when I began assembling a vinyl record collection in the late 1960s, that I might as well hang on as the technology would soon be overtaken by cassette tapes, then CDs and now internet downloads. In fact, I do not remember anyone forecasting the life-changing phenomenon that is the World Wide Web.

Or, for that matter, the rise of celebrity culture, Islamist terrorism and manmade global warming (though I do vividly recall the dire warnings that a new Ice Age was just around the corner).

Despite this depressing track record of failure to see into the future, the media have become obsessed with trying to predict it. We cannot even wait until 3p.m. on Christmas Day to find out what the Queen might wish to convey in her annual message; we must hear an uncannily accurate resumĂ© of what she is “expected to say” the day before. Today almost the only “news” that is straight reportage rather than short range forecasting involves deaths, whether of elderly celebrities in their beds or of ordinary folk in accidents, natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Or, with luck, the avoidance of deaths because said terrorists have again failed to strike their target. At least the weirdly perverted religion that drives the desire to blow us out of the skies seems to be associated with an encouragingly high degree of technical incompetence. Having said that, it would clearly be wrong to pin our hopes on the fanatics’ continued failure.

While history shows that those who keep up sustained campaigns of violence often get their way in the end, they normally have some vaguely rational underlying political agenda. That is lacking in the current generation of would-be mass murderers.

What we can surely safely predict is that the progression from shoe bomber to underpants bomber will be followed up by the development of some even more fiendish and presumably ingested explosive device, and that ever-more intrusive attempts to detect these will make boarding an aircraft even more of a living hell than it is now.

At least if this results in a catastrophic collapse of the global airline industry, it will please the adherents of that other growing world religion, the true believers in manmade climate change.

Look on the editorial and letters pages of any newspaper, and you cannot fail to notice that the sceptics about the benefits of European integration and the causes of global warming are precisely the same people. This seems logical enough, since both are founded on a healthy cynicism about movements tending to diminish individual freedom.

In the case of Europe, one can study history and know that the anti-democratic federalist agenda was based on a noble ideal (the prevention of war) but has been pursued with a reliance on the Big Lie that would make even Hitler or Saddam Hussein blush. On climate change, we are into the realms of futurology and it seems reasonable to apply precautionary principles just in case the science turns out to be right for once.

But it is surely a complete coincidence that those prepared to blow themselves up in the name of religion and the environmental opponents of air travel should turn out to be batting for the same side, too. Or is it? After all, the desired caliphate and wind power are both, in their different ways, profoundly mediaeval concepts.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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