Steam Power

I just wound up my cuckoo clock and it got me thinking.

A few weeks ago my friend’s 13 year-old son came to stay with me for a couple of weeks and he was quite interested in my cuckoo clock (a gift from his mother, as it happens). He’d never seen a mechanical clock before.

Partly I think he was intrigued by the roughness of it – the fact that it only kept good time if you fiddled around with the length of the pendulum and adjusted it for the changing seasons. It amused him that you had to wind it up twice a day and if you pulled gently on the weight it would run faster. It was neat, he thought, how good the 3D interface was – you could almost believe it really was a little wooden cuckoo that poked its head out of the door every half hour.

But it made me sad, because he could see that here was a device that did something purely because one bit pushed on another bit. It excited him in a nebulous, yearning sort of way, as if somehow he was getting a tantalizing glimpse into some Great Truth that had hitherto been denied him by the education system.

And in a way he was. He knew nothing about clockwork. How could he? How often does a child bump up against an escapement mechanism these days? How is he or she to discover the relationship between cogs and multiplication? It’s all gone.

Or rather it’s all still there but we can no longer see it.

I love our digital age. I love the fact that a television is now a computer that merely simulates a television. I love gesture-driven interfaces and I love CPUs that run at microwave frequencies. But then I was able to know how it all works. I can still see in my mind the clockwork principles from whence these miracles arise, even though I can no longer see the cogs.

As a young boy I took locks and clocks to pieces, because that’s what was available. I found out why they went wrong when I clumsily broke some part or another, and often when they’d gone wrong I could put them right again. Sometimes I could put them together in new ways to do new things.

In my teens I graduated to old TV sets and ex-military radio receivers. My dad built me a shortwave radio with an 80-foot aerial, a single valve (vacuum tube), and a 90-volt battery (yes, 90 volts!). I could see the glow of the heater and feel its warmth. Unlike clocks and watches, which oscillate a few times per second, this was dealing with oscillations in the thousands and millions of times per second but it was still concrete enough to be within my ken. I could still sense what it was doing and how it did it, because I could take what I knew about clocks and relate it to what was going on in this glowing glass bottle and its associated capacitors (which themselves were nothing but rolls of paper and foil). The reactance in its tank circuit was a pendulum in my mind; the rectifying diode was a ratchet.

But all this has gone. There are no governors, no escapements, no gear ratios. The closest most children can get to direct contact with mechanical principles these days is a bicycle. If they ever go outside. Technology has become magic again.

Is it any wonder so many people believe nonsense nowadays? Is it any wonder people can’t grasp the true age of the earth, don’t understand climate change, can’t fix their cars when they go wrong? We’ve taken away all the things that allow us to understand our world. It has all become abstract and hidden.

When I sit here typing things on my PC, my mind still knows what is really happening inside the machine in terms of bits bumping into other bits. It’s not a mystery. I’m in control of it; it’s not in control of me. But this is in large part because I used to be able to take clocks to pieces. This is because I used to ride on steam trains. This is because I’ve poisoned myself, electrocuted myself and shortened my life by playing around with forces of nature that are now secreted away in mute plastic packages, beyond reach.

My whole conceptual framework is founded on concepts that I can see in my mind’s eye because I’ve felt them with my own hands. Mechanics provided me with the keys to unlock the natural world. Ratchets and levers and coils and damping and thrashing and flows and regulators are the building blocks of my understanding of the entire world. Without those I would understand very little.

What chance has a child, these days? What chance even their parents?

As Arthur C. Clarke put it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But today that’s virtually ALL technology. What is it like to know how to use your X-Box but not have a clue what is going on inside it? You can take it apart, but what good does that do? You can stare at a CPLD or an MCU all you like, but nothing ever moves.

People cope. People live fruitful and interesting lives. But is it really any surprise that so many of us believe bizarre ideas? One arrangement of brass gizmos looks much like another if you don’t realize that one of them is an escapement – one of the greatest inventions of mankind. So why wouldn’t one “theory” of the creation of the earth look much like another? Who can separate creationist claptrap from the beautiful theory of evolution if they just look like different arrangements of arbitrary ideas? Who can understand that global warming sometimes means really cold winters if they have no underlying grasp of dynamics? It took until the 17th Century before William Harvey was able to elucidate the circulation of the blood in terms of pumps and pipes, but if nobody knows any more how a pump works, what use is this metaphor today?

I don’t know what we do about this. Perhaps I’m fretting about nothing – it’s perfectly normal for people, once they reach a certain frail age, to lament the loss of skills that their generation cherished. We still have brilliant young computer engineers, so someone’s getting a proper conceptual development somehow, even if they don’t get exposed to clockwork any more. But nevertheless, I think the lack of transparency in modern technology may have significant consequences for our conceptual development that we haven’t yet begun to unravel.

Time will tell, or at least it will if I remember to wind the clock.

To be or not to be?

Today, the citizens of Mississippi are voting to decide whether a fertilized egg should legally be considered a person. The polls are apparently pretty evenly balanced.

I’ve heard all sorts of discussion on this topic, and on the rare occasions it manages to rise above the level of shouting and name calling, it seems to come to rest instead on the usual cop-out argument of any US political debate: the question of whether such a law is “constitutional” or not.

Huh? I’m sorry? What about the question of whether it makes any fucking sense or not?

I don’t think I’ve heard a single person discuss the biology of the issue. Not one. It’s like it doesn’t matter. I suppose I can understand that (in the sort of way that one might “understand” why a drunk falls into puddles) from the perspective of the Religious Right, for whom the question is presumably theological, not biological. I suppose they have some vague and unsubstantiated feeling that conception is the moment at which God inserts a soul into the cell, and hence from that moment on it’s as much a person as you and I.

But come on! Fertilization is just the moment at which a haploid sperm injects another 23 molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid into an egg cell, returning its complement to the normal 46 molecules so that it can resume dividing. The mechanism for this is really amazing, but it’s not magic. No souls are involved, just chemistry. Where is the “person” in 23 strands of polymer? Or indeed 46?

The sperm cells have half the normal DNA, but they developed from cells that had a full complement, just as a fertilized egg does. So does that mean the billions of spermatogonia in my testes are people too? Those born with Down Syndrome have an extra chromosome 21, does this make them superhuman? Or is it the truth of the matter that this is all just based on some ignorant, ancient belief that men “bestow life” on an egg, which women simply carry in their bellies while it grows up?

It’s not even reasonable to say that fertilization is the “moment at which a cell becomes committed to growing into a human.” Every point before that is equally precipitate: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You can’t fertilize an egg until you have one, and the switch inside a stem cell that commits it to produce an egg cell rather than any other kind of cell is just as defining a moment. The vast majority of unfertilized egg cells never go on to produce babies, but then neither do the majority of fertilized ones. There’s really no defining point of being; it’s all just a gradual process of becoming.

Clearly an unfertilized egg is not a person, which is quite a relief, given that every woman of child-bearing age would thus be guilty of murder once a month. A sperm had better not be a person either, or I’m guilty of wiping out more people per day than all the wars in history put together. At the same time, an eighteen year-old clearly IS a person. Killing teenagers often seems pretty desirable but despite the temptation I imagine most of us would consider it wrong. So we have a process, at one end of which something is not a person while at the other end it is. If letting a sperm cell die is not murder but bumping off a teenager is, then how do we decide when and under what conditions we handle the legal, ethical and moral transition from the one state to the other?

This is an incredibly difficult question and we REALLY ought to be having a proper grown-up, thoughtful debate about it. But instead we’re treated to simplistic, hysterical dogma from both sides. It won’t be long before we know how to grow one of my cheek cells into another human being. Does that make my body a hundred trillion people? We already know that identical twins are two people borne from a single egg cell, so when is a fertilized egg cell one person and when is it two? How is Mississippi law proposing to untangle that one?

Only the ignorant would think that the moment of fertilization is the “point” at which a cell becomes a person, or even a sensible place to draw an otherwise arbitrary line. The quality of debate is shocking. Meanwhile, every day, EITHER people really are getting murdered in their thousands because women are having abortions at some specified stage of pregnancy OR women (not to mention their partners and perhaps the children themselves) are having their lives needlessly ruined by being prevented from having one. The problem isn’t going away and it isn’t going to get any simpler. We urgently need to find the right answers, but are we even asking the right questions?

What does it MEAN to murder someone? What does it mean to have the right to live? Did the skin cells I rubbed off my foot this morning when I put my socks on deserve a right to live? Perhaps “life” is the wrong question. Perhaps a group of living cells’ collective rights depend on whether they KNOW they’re alive? Perhaps they collectively have to be able to suffer, to have plans and hopes that get thwarted, before killing them becomes wrong. But what does it mean to know? What does it mean to suffer? What is consciousness? What is it like to be an embryo? A baby? A three year-old? An octogenarian with Alzheimers? What is it that murder takes away and from whom or what can it be taken? Is “killing” a three month-old embryo worse than killing a three year-old cow in order to make hamburgers? How do we know?

We really should have answers for this stuff by now. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, for heaven’s sake. But not only do we not know the answers, we barely even understand or take the trouble to think clearly about the questions. Meanwhile, people are walking into voting booths in Mississippi today (and doubtless in many other states in the near future, regardless of what happens in MS today), to make a judgement call that will or will not outlaw all forms of abortion, the morning after pill and many forms of contraception. On the basis of what? Religious dogma that can’t even call on scripture for meaningful comment? Gut feeling? Personal bias? Sympathy for babies? Sympathy for women? Misogyny? Guesswork?