A New Golden Age Of Technology

It used to be said that one of the “benefits” of war was the great leap forward in technology that accompanied each. So for example, the technology to build long range bombers to carry death and destruction to enemy cities in distant lands was used after the second world war to carry holidaymakers to those same destinations. We can’t imagine a world without mass air transportation now. Similarly, the cold war race fostered America’s defense advance research projects agency out of which emerged the Internet. We can’t imagine a world without that either. Each war throughout history has examples such as these and as periods of development each stands out for furious inventiveness compared with peace time lethargy. It remains to be seen what “benefits” we may derive from technological leaps due to the war on terror, such as drones and the data mining of vast amounts of individual personal communications.

But are we living today in an era of extraordinary technological progress that used to only occur during times of war? Science fiction writer Madsen Pirie thinks we are. If you read his blog here, you will see regular posts highlighting such advances. Today’s is a case in point: “A fusion breakthrough releases more energy than it takes to achieve it.” As he explains and as I certainly remember, nuclear fusion as a source of limitless energy has been promised for decades, with “promise” being the operative. It has seemed at times to be akin to the ancient goal of turning base metal into gold or the pursuit of perpetual motion. But it draws ever closer to realisation. The latest news is that for the first time genuine fusion has been achieved that produces more energy than was used to initiate it. It’s only been achieved on an experimental scale and I can see it would take a decade or more to scale it up to production, but this is a significant step nonetheless.

I think we really are living in a golden age of technology. Medical technology has advanced beyond recognition; people today are living longer with diseases that not long ago would have quickly killed them. Aircraft and road vehicles travel further on less fuel than we could have imagined only a few years ago, and in much greater safety. SatNav has transformed the way we travel too. And when once it took months to have a very basic telephone installed in your home, we now carry around mobile phones that have more power than a desktop computer of just a few years ago, but in addition they are connected to the Internet and they take better photos than a top of the range camera used to do. Even something as mundane as shopping has been transformed with supermarkets that have fresh produce brought from all around the world where you can wander round ‘ringing up’ your own purchases as you go and paying for them at an unmanned till with a piece of plastic or, even, your mobile phone. The greatest advance in technology, however, has to be social. Google, Facebook and Twitter have changed the world. People everywhere can interact as never before, in ways we are still struggling to comprehend and in ways that are literally revolutionary. Twitter in particular has been the precursor or the igniter of popular uprisings that have toppled governments making a texted word more powerful than tear gas or bullets. Now that is technology at its best and it is happening without the impetus of a war.

There are many technology posts on Madsen’s blog that are well worth reading. He is also president of the Adam Smith Institute so a lot of his posts also concern economics and the free market, and you might also enjoy his eclectic range of moral and social topics.

Does it matter whether Aung San Suu Kyi likes us or not?

When John Simpson interviewed Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi last November, the most striking thing about her was her English accent. It was very old-school received pronunciation, exactly what one used to hear on the BBC World Service years ago, all prim and proper. She explained to him at the time that she listened to the BBC a lot while she was under house arrest, and she elaborated on the topic in the Telegraph yesterday. According to Aung San Suu Kyi: my love for the Hairy Cornflake, she particularly enjoyed listening to music which, she laments, is not often heard on the service any more.

The reason for that, I suspect, and for the timing of the interview, becomes clearer with today’s story: BBC World Service receives £2.2m funding boost. The World Service has been subjected to a massive 16% budget cut, on top of many cutbacks in services over the years. One such cut, I would guess, is to play less music and pay less in royalties which would be why Ms Suu Kyi can’t hear any any more. As well as cutting expenditure, the World Service is also cutting its workforce by a whopping 25% and dropping still more language services. All of this is deeply depressing. But it must be good news that William Hague has found £2.2 million to give a boost to the World Service, surely? Not really. A 16% cut on a budget of £270 million is £43.2 million. Giving the corporation £2.2 million back still leaves it £41 million down. That £2.2 million is much less than 1%. It’s chicken feed.

When I lived in Germany, I used to listen to the World Service regularly, it was my strongest link back to England. Ex-pats are inordinately attached to the traditions of their native land and I can still hear Lillibullero, that jaunty, bouncing melody that introduced the news at One o-clock each day with more than a twinge of nostalgia. Not parochial news from and about England, but truly world news, events that were shaping the world we lived in that most of my compatriots back home would be blissfully ignorant of. You can hear the tune here.

What the World Service does for us and our standing in the world is enormous, but the benefits are all intangibles. And that’s a problem in this balance-sheet driven world; the World Service doesn’t make a profit for us. Last year there were 188 million listeners and audiences in Persian, Urdu and Arabic are increasing. What built it’s reputation is that from the start the news was written and presented by serious journalists, the best in the business for objectivity, it wasn’t “British propaganda”, it was honest and unbiased news reportage. Listeners across the world, particularly in oppressed states, could tune in to hear the news in their own language about what was going on in their own country. They did not have to believe what their rulers were telling them.

In an age when Facebook and Twitter can be used to stir revolution, the BBC World Service is still a significant force for good. So does it matter that Aung San Suu Kyi likes us? With respect, no. It’s good that she shares values with us, but what matters more is that dictators the world over don’t like us because we are able to talk directly to their people and tell them the truth.

Isn’t truth supposed to be mightier than the sword?

When is starving someone to death ever acceptable?

These tragic cases hit the headlines every few years. A loving family applies to the courts for permission to stop “life sustaining treatment” to allow a loved-one in a persistent vegetative state to “die with dignity”. The “life sustaining treatment” bit is just some weasel words that mean removing their feeding tubes and letting them starve to death. Now I don’t question the love that the family has, or the agony and torment they’re going through, or their desire to do whatever is best for their loved one, but I do have two serious concerns.

My first concern is the method. I really do mean that weasel words are used to conceal the real horror of what’s being done. If the patient has a heart attack and the medics do not resuscitate, that’s fine with me, but that’s not what this is all about. This is about actively bringing about their death. It’s about removing their oxygen supply if they have one, and removing their feeding tubes. If they’re not able to breathe without assistance, they will suffocate. If they are able to breathe, they will stay alive until they have starved or dehydrated.

I’m not happy about that.

If all the expert medical opinion is agreed, and all the tests are conclusive, and no mistakes have been made, and the patient can be considered medically and legally dead, then I can understand the desire to bring a peaceful end to a tragic situation. But still. By starvation? Would we treat a dog like that? If we judged that a much-loved pet had to be “put to sleep” – more weasel words – would we be happy if the vet put the pet into a cage and left it there until it had starved to death? Then why would we treat a human being like that?

My second concern is alluded to above. What if they’re wrong? Mistakes are made and misdiagnoses do occur. Medical malpractice lawyers in America make a very lucrative living from such cases and while the culture of litigation here in the UK is different, I’m sure we make just as many mistakes. They will be very rare mistakes. But what proportion of potentially recovering patients to patients with no prospects of recovery would we be happy with? How many living people must we kill before we become uncomfortable with this whole process?

We can combine my two concerns into one hypothetical. Let’s say that the patient really is just a breathing cadaver. Why shouldn’t we let surgeons harvest the organs while they’re still fresh? If we are so convinced the patient can feel no pain, where’s the harm? But if we are still a bit squeamish about it, if we don’t like the way the body twitches when the surgeon cuts the heart out, then why don’t we just put a bullet through the brain? Far better than damaging useful transplant organs by using poisonous gasses or chemicals to terminate life.

Whatever we do, it has to be quick and humane. Starving to death is neither and we are just dancing around the issue. Should a court find that circumstances are such as to warrant life support being withdrawn, it should also rule that measures can be taken to actively end the life. It cannot be right that a court can sanction a barbarous act and encourage the suffering which will be the likely result. If everyone is so convinced there would be no suffering if life support is withdrawn, then do the job properly and bring peace to all involved.

Finally, I would not have been prompted to write this piece were it not for an article in the Telegraph today reporting that a mother is applying for just such a court order concerning her daughter.  She has been in a “minimally conscious state” since February 2003, a truly tragic situation.  But what was the bigger aspect of the story that piqued the Telegraph’s interest? It was that the mother has also obtained an injunction to protect her family’s privacy and this was the first to explicitly cover social media, citing Facebook and Twitter by name.

First injunction specifically bans Facebook and Twitter

So an upcoming death by legally sanctioned starvation is not as big a story as anything about Twitter is.  Such is modern reporting.