On Technology and Dark Ages
It is one of the tragic delusions of the human race that we believe in the inevitability of progress. We look around us, and we seem to see a glorious affirmation that our ruthless species of homo is getting ever more sapiens. We see ice cream Snickers bars and in vitro babies and beautiful electronic pads on which you can paint with your fingertip and – by heaven – suitcases with wheels! Think of it: we managed to put a man on the moon about 35 years before we came up with wheelie-suitcases; and yet here they are. They have completely displaced the old type of suitcase, the ones with a handle that you used to lug puffing down platforms. Aren’t they grand? Life seems impossible without them, and soon they will no doubt be joined by so many other improvements – acne cures, electric cars, electric suitcases – that we will be strengthened in our superstition that history is a one-way ratchet, an endless click click click forwards to a nirvana of liberal democratic free-market brotherhood of man. Isn’t that what history teaches us, that humanity is engaged in a remorseless ascent? On the contrary: history teaches us that the tide can suddenly and inexplicably go out, and that things can lurch backwards into darkness and squalor and appalling violence. The Romans gave us roads and aqueducts and glass and sanitation and all the other benefits famously listed by Monty Python; indeed, they were probably on the verge of discovering the wheely-suitcase when they went into decline and fall in the fifth century AD. Whichever way you look at it, this was a catastrophe for the human race. People in Britain could no longer read or write. Life-expectancy plummeted to about 32, and the population fell. The very cattle shrunk at the withers. The secret of the hypocaust was forgotten, and chilblain-ridden swineherds built sluttish huts in the ruins of the villas, driving their post-holes through the mosaics. In the once bustling Roman city of London (for instance) we find no trace of human habitation save for a mysterious black earth that may be a relic of a fire or some primitive system of agriculture. It took hundreds of years before the population was restored to Roman levels. If we think that no such disaster could happen again, we are not just arrogant but forgetful of the lessons of the very recent past. Never mind the empty temples of the Aztecs or the Incas or the reproachful beehive structures of the lost civilisation of Great Zimbabwe. Look at our own era: the fate of European Jewry, massacred in the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents, on the deranged orders of an elected government in what had been one of the most civilised countries on earth; or look at the skyline of modern German cities, and mourn those medieval buildings blown to smithereens in an uncontrollable cycle of revenge. Yes, when things go backwards, they can go backwards fast. Technology, liberty, democracy, comfort – they can all go out of the window. However complacent we may be, in the words of the poet Geoffrey Hill, “Tragedy has us under regard”. Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted from the Daily Telegraph, 18 June, 2012, continued here. Author Boris Johnson is the Mayor of London and a respected figure in Britain’s Conservative Party.