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Science Book Club – Episode 14


50 years ago, people had a much better connection to the technology

Further discussions with Lewis Dartnell about The Knowledge

On the need for a pessimistic outlook

I think there is certainly a need for some kind of wake up call or general realisation that we’ve had it good, we’ve had it easy so far, and things are going to get more difficult and we are going to have to start making sacrifices in our day to day lives, but I don’t know to what extent it’s productive to start getting too pessimistic or doom spreading because, at the end of the day, if people don’t hear what they like, they kind of shut of, it’s kind of a psychological defence mechanism.  And it is good that there are people out there raising people’s awareness of all these problems we’ve talked about – peak oil and climate change – but, at the end of the day, you’ve got to incentivise people to make those changes and not just push them away or kind of shut them down and its clearly a very difficult problem and it’s something we are going to have to think about very hard and try to work out a solution and I’m…personally I don’t know what the optimum solution  is going to be but there is a scary amount of denialism that these problems even exist, let alone working towards start making steps to solve them, and that’s the first stepping stone to address.

On the end of technology

50 years ago, people had a much better connection to the technology they were using: you could open up a wireless radio, you could look at the kind of…50, maybe 70 years ago, you could kind of look at the vacuum tubes that are in there and if you had a little bit of electrical training or you went to the library and got a book on electronics you could typically work out what was going on.  You could see the different bits, you could conceptualise what the different bits did and how they connected; and this bit is clearly broken, I’ll take it out and I’ll replace it with a spare and I’ll have repaired my radio, but you just don’t get to do this nowadays.  All the stuff I use in my day to life like my laptop that I work on, my phone I call my mates on, I don’t know how it would work, I wouldn’t have the foggiest.  I could hit it with a hammer and crack open the case of my iPhone and all I would see is almost kind of like a city scape scene from how you get these integrated circuits and microchips which…it’s just a black box.  There’s no way I could ever work out what that does, what its functions are or how to repair it because it’s literally invisibly small, the transistors and the wiring inside those microchips are invisible to the naked eye, you have to kind of use microscopes to see them.  And a lot of technology today doesn’t even come with an instruction manual, with a quick start guide or a troubleshooting guide; if things go wrong you take it down to the shop and they either say they can fix it – that’ll be 50 quid – and they take it into the back, they come back and you have no idea what that process was, or they say, nothing we can do about that mate, you’re gonna have to buy another one, 500 quid.

And its dissatisfying, isn’t it, like I was saying, its kind of frustrating that…I think a lot of people like to understand how stuff works – it’s a very empowering thing to understand how things I use actually work – and we’re losing that, but to a certain extent it’s kind of necessarily losing that.  I like the fact that I can have a phone in my pocket which has got my calendar and access to the internet, you know, the sum total of human knowledge, and it’s got games on it and video, and just 20 years ago you couldn’t put that in the back of a van, a transit van would be the kind of thing you’d need to pack all of those kind of applications and functionalities.  So it’s good, I like the fact that I can put that in my pocket, but also that comes with a kind of clinging dissatisfaction that I don’t know how it works, I can never repair it myself. 

On encouraging kids to look to past technology

I think a lot of people are kind of reclaiming technology, kind of taking it back as it were; you can go to shop and for a measly sum of money, 50 quid or whatever it is, you can buy an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi and get a fully functioning computer that’s been designed for you to fiddle with, to muck about with, to play and to understand and to do whatever you like with it; it’s kind of a sand pit and you can do whatever you like and there’s websites, communities and books coming out of people just playing with this stuff and working out how to do whatever they want with it and telling each other and building up this lovely kind of level of degree of complexity..

But even more basic than that, some of the things that I really enjoyed watching and kind of learning about and going on kind of post-apocalyptic road trips with my friends to research stuff for this book, for the knowledge, was going right back to the basics and, how do I make soap for myself?  How do I make an alkali to mix with vegetable oil and animal fat to make soap that would stop you picking up infections, cause you can wash your hands and kill the bacteria.  And you can make alkali from just going back to wood ash and soaking out the potassium carbonate from it and reconcentrating by kind of evaporating off the water.

How do…just like forge iron?  I went and spent a day in a blacksmiths and worked next to a forge with coals that were red hot cause you were pumping the bellows on them and pulling iron out of the fire and just smacking the hell out of it with a hammer and anvil.  And making a knife from scratch from a…blank of metal in the first place, and I took that knife back home afterwards and made myself a cheese toastie with a knife that I’d made with my own hands, and it snapped and it was rubbish and it didn’t work very well and it wasn’t particularly sharp but it was something that I’d made with my hands and I didn’t really care that this kind of lump of ugly metal didn’t really work very well cause I’d done it myself and I got a good idea of how I’d go back and do it better next time.  If you wanted you could repeat that process and…there is a lovely movement of kind of craft and makers and theres magazines you can buy on the shop shelves about all this kind of stuff now, so, there is this disconnect with how things work in our society but I think a lot of people are aware of that and are dissatisfied by that and are doing things about it.  As I say, it’s something we can all get involved in.

On the biggest shortfall humans would face

I think what would probably the biggest stumbling block, and something I skirt around a little bit in The Knowledge, is agriculture; because you might think that walking out into a muddy field with a handful of seeds, you just chuck them in the ground and, you know, biology just happens, plants have been growing for millions of years, and it will be fine, but it probably won’t.  You’ll probably struggle to get the plants you’re interested in to grow healthily and produce enough food that you can eat and not have other plants which, you know, by definition would be weeds, in your agricultural field and how you can keep your land over generations to remain productive and fertile, not kind of…sufferance was happening before the industrial revolution in Europe and the civilised world at the time, what could you do to keep your soil well irrigated and fertile and get your crops back out and process them to feed yourself, because it’s really complicated, it’s really complicated and it took us thousands of years to work out how to do it effectively and to support a population with a food surplus.  Being able to have enough stuff to eat and not starve to death is about the most important thing you can imagine and it’s gonna be really fiddly to try and do that right.

And it’s things like that that gave me nagging concerns when I was writing the book and sweeping a little bit under the rug and making it look like it was easier than perhaps it was.  You’ll have this grace period where there’ll be canned food left on the supermarket shelves, so you get perhaps 50 years if your population surviving the apocalypse was small, you’ve got at least 50 years of eating canned food and just making sure you’ve worked out, you’ve relearned how to do agriculture for yourselves, before you need to, before the store of food has run out.