I was listening to a debate on BBC Radio 4 about the UK’s view of the future which involves using a Victorian concept, the railway, to deliver our 21st-century prosperity. It’s called High Speed 2 (HS2).
This morning I ended up lost for words.
I had to explain manual multiplication to all the sub-30-year-olds at Pentacle who've only ever known digital
Yesterday I had just been finishing off the latest book from Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam, where on his fictional Discworld the steam engine was doing to that world what the internet is doing to ours today – opening up connections and possibilities. As an author who uses fiction to try to teach real-world business lessons, I love the way Pratchett weaves reality and unreality together to help you see the present in a different way. In Pratchett's Discworld they already have the telegraph, or 'clacks' as they are known, which allow 1:1 transfer of information. The addition of the steam engine allows 1:1 movement of people and goods, and like most communications systems enriches the people who ‘journey’ on the 'communication system’ and the people at both terminuses (and any intermediate stops). In the fiction, the engineering genius Dick Simnel explains how to tame steam using sines, cosines and his “sliding rule”.
So the reason I laughed out loud today was that in the debate today, as the discussion on whether or not it made sense to construct this massive project moved to cost-benefit ratios, the person arguing for the construction, a former government minister, insisted that “The guys with slide rules, they don't know!”. Slide rules! Slide rules! It was like hearing the name of a long-lost friend or a historical mythical creature that you remember from story books of your child hood. As I have said before, "we spend most of our time responding and planning and thinking rationally in response to a world we recognise and understand but which no longer exists ...".
And when I Googled and tried to explain how a slide rule worked to my younger colleagues in the office there was a look of disbelief. The only connection for them was one who recalled a toy they'd had called Consul the Educated Monkey, which they vaguely remembered from childhood (misremembered as Constance). Consul who was in fact a slide rule. The technical equivalent of a Large Hadron Collider-type cutting edge technology tool had been reduced to a plaything.
I don’t know what the arguments for building this railway are in detail, but I have to conclude that anyone who refers to slide rules in our World After Midnight probably shouldn’t be listened to too closely.