Charles Babbage: No technology please, we’re British

Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible: if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple. Impart the same principle or show the same machine to an American or to one of our Colonists, and you will observe that the whole effort of his mind is to find some new application of the principle, some new use for the instrument.

β€”Quoted in Richard H. Babbage (1948), “The Work of Charles Babbage”, Annals of the Computation Laboratory of Harvard University, vol. 16 [quoted inΒ The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood]

Charles Babbage designed the first computer (since the Greeks, anyway) around 1840, but it was never built because he couldn’t convince the government that it had any useful function. That didn’t stop his friend Ada Lovelace from writing the first computer program for Babbage’s machine, even though it didn’t exist. Imagine how much father ahead we would be if Babbage and Lovelace had been able to put their theories into practice and the computer age had begun 150 years ago?

Update: Someone has indeed imagined what would have happened had Babbage’s computer had been built. The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, explores that very scenario. Add one more to the TBR list!


20 comments on “Charles Babbage: No technology please, we’re British

  1. Stefanie says:

    I had no idea that’s what the Difference Engine was about. I’m adding it to my TBR list too!

    I just finished watching Stephen Fry in America on netflix, and it seems the British attitude is still there to some extent. Fry remarked a number of times about the can-do attitude of Americans, the lack of cynicism in general, and the great optimism the culture seemed to have. So after that, it is kind of funny to read Babbage’s quote.

    • Sylvia says:

      I think demographics has something to do with it. Britain had abundant labour, so it was cheap to hire people to do things manually. (“The Information” also quotes some toff saying they don’t need telephones because they have messenger boys.) The US on the other hand had an abundance of land and raw materials but not enough people to exploit them, so machines were not just economical but necessary. I’ve noticed on historical programs like Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm that all the new-fangled labour-saving devices and equipment came from the US. Too bad that can-do attitude is not extending to environmental technologies!

      • Stefanie says:

        I like your observation! And good point about environmental technologies. It is really sad that is such a lagging industry. There are very smart people working on this but they are too few and have so little funding it seems it is almost impossible to get anything beyond research. Sigh

      • Sylvia says:

        I for one wonder why we are still driving gas-powered cars. It’s completely unnecessary. Most of the early cars were electric! The technology is tried and tested, and people keep complaining about gas prices, so I wonder what the hold-up is. At least they’re commercially available now, though the choice is limited (hybrids don’t count, they’re no better than economical gas cars). I hope my next car will be electric. I’m sick and tired of producing CO2 every time I go out.

  2. There is certainly value to the practical and utilitarian mindset that the Americans have. For one thing, it has made them the most technologically advanced country in the world. (Although some would dispute that and argue that that is no longer the case.)

    Strange to say, I have sympathy to the British aversion to technology. (That’s really strange because I use to earn a living as an IT professional.) Technology, after all, hasn’t always benefited human beings. Sometimes it has even created more problems.

    But, of course, I realize that we can’t turn back the hand of time, be Luddites and just abandon technology, which, I have to admit, has made our lives easier and comfortable. However, I believe, that we have to develop a spiritual or a contemplative approach towards technology for it to be truly beneficial to us.

    In the words of the article I just read this afternoon about technology and spirituality:

    “Technology is fundamentally utilitarian: The question that drives all technological innovation is, ‘Will it work?’ By contrast, contemplation is concerned with meaning, with relationship, and with community. A contemplative approach to technology will not ask, ‘Will it work?’ but, ‘Is it good?’ or ‘Is it just?'”

    Very much interested to read “The Difference Engine.” Definitely a book I’ll be adding to my TBR list…

    ~ Matt

    • Sylvia says:

      Matt, you’re quite right, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done or that it will improve human (or other) life. That said, in this particular context, the English powers-that-be had little interest in labour-saving devices because they had a large and desperately poor population that they could force to do the most difficult, dangerous and degrading work for almost no money. In Victorian London, conditions were so bad that the death rate exceeded the birth rate. The population only increased because of immigration from the countryside. It was a one-way trip, and often a short one for the working poor. (See this quote from Dombey and Son.) Their social technology was certainly not good or just and they could have done with a bit of American egalitarianism along with the tractors and telegraphs. Perhaps it was the technology that changed things. It certainly changed things for women, who were freed from household drudgery that we can’t imagine now with our electric stoves and washing machines. Freeing all that human potential has to be good for society. Perhaps we can also ask if technology makes us more free to be the best that we can be.

      • I see… I wasn’t really aware at all of the underlying factors of the English aversion towards technology, especially during the Victorian era. Thanks for pointing it out to me. Now I can say that there is nothing commendable about their attitude towards technology.

        Technology is a mixed blessing. For sure, it has done a lot of good for us. But, just like anything else, it has also been misused and abused.

        You’re right: one of the keys for its proper application and use is to ask if technology can help us free our potential to be the best that we can be. We just have to find a way to humanize the technology available to us today to ensure that it will help us live a better and meaningful life…

        ~ Matt

      • Sylvia says:

        Yes, I suppose it all comes down to what we use technology for. Even something as simple as a rock could be used to crack open nuts (helpful) or to throw at someone (not helpful!). I think information technology in particular maybe has more positive potential because of its power to educate and expose people to different human experiences and to let people express themselves freely. Of course a lot of bad things are shared online as well but I hope that overall it is a tool for good. Just like books! πŸ™‚

  3. Very fun and thought-provoking quote. Friends have read The Difference Engine and recommended it. Perhaps I need to add it to a list as well.

    • Sylvia says:

      Whoops, sorry Tom, I missed this comment. Yes, I’m thinking of reading this. I’ve read a couple of his books and I think he has a good perspective on the Catholic Church. I heard an interview about this book and it seems pretty radical but it’s a discussion worth having. The Church hierarchy keeps proving itself unworthy and perhaps a different way of running the Church would be better, though it has to be said that more democratic churches are shrinking so fast they may soon be extinct. It’s a difficult question.

      • Tom says:

        Hi Sylvia, no problem. I haven’t been engaged much on the net these days. Yes, I may have to read it too, though I’m not Catholic. Wills is an interesting guy, and I’ve enjoyed his books on Jesus and Paul – “What the Gospels Meant” is up next.

        What do you think of the Pope retiring?

      • Sylvia says:

        Those books are on my TBR pile. πŸ™‚ As for the pope retiring, that’s a big question. I appreciate that he didn’t want to leave the Church rudderless as his health declined. I wasn’t surprised in the least by that, knowing how conscientious a person he is. I like that it removes some of the mystique of the papacy. The pope is not a monarch for life or a supernatural being, but a human leader whose abilities are limited.

        On the other hand, there is something to be said for the way John Paul II was a witness to suffering in his later years. So often we want to hide that away. There is spiritual leadership in that too, but then he had Ratzinger to run the day to day operation, and I gather Benedict didn’t delegate much.

        On a whole other level, what happens at the Vatican is not terribly relevant to the average Catholic, at least not in the West or North. We go on accepting or rejecting papal teachings as conscience dictates (which was a major principle of Vatican II). So in some ways it doesn’t matter too much. Since Benedict chose most of the cardinals, we are likely to get more of the same.

        What baffles me is how much media attention it gets. So few people go to any church, let alone a Catholic Church, yet it is seen as an event of worldwide import. I guess when you combine all the church scandals, the suspense of the conclave, and the impressive backdrop of St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel, it’s a perfect news story. And all the correspondents get a nice peaceful trip to Italy instead of covering some war zone!

        I would like to think that the world still looks to the Vatican for some moral leadership, but I’m not sure that is still true or if it was ever realistic. If you’ve read Garry Wills’ “Papal Sin” and “Why I Am A Catholic” you know that the papacy has been about as corrupt as can be, and though it’s much better now, it is still bogged down by tradition.

        I could go on but I think I’ve gone far enough! How does it look to you as an outsider? Will you be watching for the white smoke?

      • Tom says:

        As an outsider, it’s interesting. I agree that while individual popes may not be bad guys, they are still human and the RC church too corporate to serve as anything more than an administrator. But while church attendance dwindles for all flavors of Christianity, the RC church is still very big. What the pope says and does matters.

        It was a courageous move on his part to retire, but it made total sense to me. I get what you mean about JP II being a witness to suffering, but he was still “the guy”, and if you’re going to be the guy, you’ve got to have the energy to do the job. I think he made the right call to step down. And I wonder if this move won’t serve to shape a more, I don’t know, reasonable?, view of what a pope really is and what should be expected of him.

        I hope you won’t take offense (pretty sure you won’t): I’m no Sinead O’Connor, but I think the papacy is due for a major overhaul. I would hope the whole sex abuse scandal would motivate the leadership to reassess what their mission is and what Christ wants: protect this big global corporate structure with vast real estate holdings, or to change hardened hearts into ones that love, have compassion for those who suffer, and battle injustice.

        Ditching the big hat and white robes (vestments?) would be a start; I attend a Methodist church and the pastor rarely puts on the uniform – probably only wears them when corporate pays a visit. Also, and this is REALLY EASY for me to say: I think the pope-mobile needs to be retired. I don’t think you can effectively preach Christ from behind bullet proof glass and body guards. This would be very risky (the conclave would sadly become a more frequent event) and certainly would take more faith and, frankly guts, than I have, but I don’t wear the title “Vicar of Christ”.

        Oh well. My two cents. Did I cross a line? πŸ™‚

      • Sylvia says:

        Sorry I didn’t reply sooner, Tom. What a difference a week makes! I think you are about to get some of your wishes from our new pope! Like so many people I’m overjoyed by the election of Pope Francis. How wrong I was to predict “more of the same.” We are getting something completely different, someone who walks & talks the Gospels. I can’t tell you how relieved I am! I suppose there is only so much he’ll be able to do–it’s hard to turn a ship as big as the Catholic Church–but the way he has been received so ecstatically by all levels of the Church tells me that it is more than ready for a change of direction.

  4. vishnevats says:

    I think it is interesting how the discussion has digressed to the papacy. As a lapsed Catholic I was also amazed by the media hoopla. This is about the head of a religion not about a major global power. However people (or at least the media) do seem to think the decision of a pope to step down and a change of popes in general merit that much attention.

    It seems that this pope may be well on his way to initiate a simpler papacy. And amazingly, as Tom has suggested, he already has ditched the popemobile. I have always been offended by the pomp of the papacy. If you are a follower of Christ, why would you desecrate the cross by putting it on your slippers? And all that ring kissing – have a handiwipe ready! But maybe Jesus will eliminate the germs.

    Yet the pomp and circumstance are what make the RC Church so successful. It is said that for many ex-catholics it is the traditions and the ceremonies that they miss the most.

    I will also put Why Priests, by Gary Wills on my TBR list.

    • Sylvia says:

      Heh. All topics are welcome here! I was not surprised that Francis ditched the popemobile. I would not be surprised to see him in a black cassock from time to time. I’m sure he does not like the white one. He did not like to wear purple as a bishop. But it would be too weird if Benedict continued to wear white and Francis did not!

      Yes, I’ve heard of Catholics who speak longingly of the old Mass. I on the other hand began at a very simple Franciscan chapel and am turned off by too much stagecraft. Perhaps sensibilities can change. When I see the splendour of St. Peter’s Basilica, though I’m naturally wowed by the art and architecture and music, I am also repulsed by the wealth and division it represents. I gather that much of the building fund was acquired by the selling of indulgences, which was a major sore point leading to the Protestant Reformation. That glorious pile of stones drove a wedge between Christians and sparked horrific bloodshed. I guess we’re stuck with it now but at least the day-to-day operations can be simplified, and Francis is already doing that.

      And my theory about the germs is that by the time they get to be pope they’ve shaken so many hands and gotten so many colds and flus that they are immune to everything. πŸ˜‰

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