Tools of War and Peace
Anti-globalisation protesters hate landmines - but what will they make of a genetically modified landmine detector?
- Tools of war and peace
Scientists in Copenhagen have announced that they have produced a plant that helps to detect hidden landmines, by changing its colour to red when its roots come into contact with explosives (1). This is truly breathtaking stuff, the kind of story that fills you with awe of humanity. But it is a development rich with metaphor, too.
Landmines, as with all devices designed to maim and kill, are often cited by anti-modernists as proof that we use technological advancement merely for destructive purposes. George Monbiot, the doyen of the anti-globalisation movement, recently lamented the hundredth anniversary of powered flight, pointing out that thanks to aircraft we have been able to murder civilians on an unprecedented scale.
If one considers the bombing of Dresden, Coventry and Hiroshima, Monbiot naturally has a point. But aircraft have given much enjoyment to many, and have made the world a smaller place. And try telling those who were relieved by the Berlin Airlift or Australians who are serviced daily by flying doctors that aircraft are merely bringers of pain. Blaming technology is a tad anthropomorphic. Place blame instead on the bad behaviour of individuals and regimes.
If people such as Monbiot had their way, the wheel wouldn’t have been invented. Ever since it was first attached to an Assyrian chariot, the wheel has been a priceless instrument of war. Tinned food and railways made the murderous deadlock of the First World War possible. To be fundamentally ‘anti-technology’ from this anti-war premise would be to demand we return to living as cavemen – cavemen who wouldn’t even be allowed to make those nasty spears to hunt and to survive.
Landmines are particularly vilified in this quarter. In my opinion, they are no worse than other lethal weapons. If you are a small country that seeks to protect itself from a much larger, neighbouring aggressor, landmines may be an invaluable means of defence. Yet it seems today that their primary victims are innocents, so this development by Danish scientists is something to be welcomed.
And how have these scientists done it? The answer is anathema to anti-modernists on two counts: (1) it employs technological progress to (2) create a genetically modified plant. I trust now that we shall be hearing howls of protest from those who would rather see detonator squads risk their lives than accept that we ‘tamper with nature’.
- Chill out
The British public is not distinguishing itself at present in regards to the weather. We have been told that temperatures will later this week dip below zero and that it’s going to snow. In other words, we’re going to have winter weather in the middle of winter. Cor blimey.
But suddenly everyone goes into a massive panic. We are told that the roads are going to come to a standstill and we’re all going to freeze to death. We are stocking up for the ‘Big Chill’. Asda says that sales of skiwear have risen 300 per cent, hot water bottles were up 50 per cent, electric blankets 37 per cent and duvets 45 per cent. Other big sellers at the moment are de-icers and screenwashes for cars, soup, Thermos flasks, winter woolies and salt.
Why doesn’t everyone possess these items already? Where have these Britons been living all their lives? The Algarve? Six months ago there were complaints that it was summer and it was hot, and now, gasp, it’s winter and it’s going to be cold. This weather warning has turned us into a people seemingly preparing itself for some kind of apocalypse. We resemble a medieval village awaiting a visitation of the Black Death, or the citizens of late-antiquity Rome living in grim expectancy of a load of Huns in the mood for a really good scrap.
I see no reason to herald the twentieth anniversary of the Apple Macintosh. People who own them always go on about how nice, colourful and user-friendly they are compared with your cold and unwieldy PCs. They do have a point. But Mac-lovers seem to be in a state of arrested development, constantly boring everyone to death about their merits.
I remember everyone of my school generation spent a great deal of time championing the virtues of the Spectrum against the Commodore 64, and later, the Amiga and the Atari ST. I like to count myself as a veteran of the computer wars myself; as a speccy 14-year-old I had a letter printed in a computer magazine that made a compelling argument for the superiority of the Amiga.
But we should all grow up. Computers are a means to an end. To be interested in them for their own sake is a little retarded. I’m interested in them only because they’re so annoying to use. All error messages are in gibberish, internet connections are rarely secure and I haven’t had one computer that hasn’t crashed. My present PC is the worst I’ve had. The anti-virus programme has never worked, the mouse works when it feels like it and now the machine has taken to periodically shutting itself down on its own whim.
I still admire the PC for what philosopher Umberto Eco said were its Calvinist values. According to Eco, the Windows system allows for free interpretation of scripture and asks difficult personal decisions from the user, allowing you a programme that suits your own personal needs. It is about individual quest where users determine their own salvation. On the other hand, the Apple Mac is Catholic, a machine that guides the user through simple step-by-step instructions with a heavy reliance on icons. Macs owe much to the Jesuit philosophy that teaches that everyone has a right to salvation. In a way, I think computers shouldn’t be easy.
Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).
(1) GM plant detects landmines, ABC, 26 January 2004
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