When I was a student (about half a century ago) I once hitched a lift with a lorry driver who asked me what I was studying. “Philosophy”, I said. He held out his hand and said: “Read my palm”.
My first job was in market research. Turning the responses to questionnaires into tables of percentages involved transferring the results on to punch cards, and hopping on a number 73 bus to take them down to the IBM office off Oxford Street to be processed on London’s sole commercial computer. You booked your time on the machine, and waited beside the humming monster the half an hour or so it took to transform the holes in the punch cards into tables of results comprehensible to the client. You could do it by hand, of course (and often we did) but IBM was marginally quicker.
Market researchers, like philosophers, are accredited with a certain limited ability to read the future – for instance when it comes to forecasting election results. Not unreasonably, the public associates wisdom with prophesy. After all, information nowadays is available to everyone who possesses the skill to access it; and so those who live by their wits (journalists, market researchers, academics, climate scientists) can only justify their superiority over the crowd by their skill in interpreting the information available to all. And mostly that means interpreting its significance for the future – the only unknown unknown.
Back then in the sixties I’d guess we were about 5% of the population – those who knew how to use a library catalogue and annotate a text, and – in extreme circumstances – access the services of IBM. Certain professions (lawyers, doctors, university professors) had been doing it for centuries. Now a new generation of university graduates were all doing it, and the skills of information processing had passed to a whole new range of professions, including business executives, advertising men, politicians, officers of the armed services, climatologists, and (of course) all the experts who write books on every subject under the sun.
If access to university education was one of the defining characteristics of the sixties, another was access to knowledge of all kinds via cheap paperbacks. No-one under the age of forty can imagine a world without Wikipaedia, a world in which ownership of a stock of Pelicans was a necessary bastion against ignorance. Of course it wasn’t infallible. There were Pelicans which would assure you that Mao’s China was the path to the future, and others that asserted the same thing about traditional Indian wisdom, or Zen Buddhism. And others that spoke of a new scientific discipline that combined the wisdom of traditonal societies with the discoveries of modern science – Ecology.
Small is Beautiful. Limits to Growth. The Population Bomb.The End of Affluence. These books – or rather the titles of these books – formed a generation. No need to have read them or to have absorbed the ideas therein. It was enough to have belonged to a generation which ascribed vaguely to certain ideas: that we live on a fragile planet; that resources are limited; that mankind is threatened, and at the same time dangerous. Anyone who ascribes to these ideas immediately becomes a seer, someone who foresees the future, who can read your palm.
And those who ascribed to these ideas were not a random sample of bods, but a clearly defined social class – the “classless” university educated middle class that emerged around the sixties and seventies and rapidly took over the levers of power in the media and in the political parties. If only David Cameron were a typical class product of the Eton- educated élite. If only Ed Miliband were a prisoner of the trade unions who elected him. Then we might have a dialogue, a debate. But their ideologies are identical. They belong to the same social class – the same computer savvy nerd culture which is proud to know that the world is round and not flat – and therefore thinks it can be summarised in a pie chart.
And those who live by the computer-produced graph must envisage dying by it – hence the necessity of computer-induced tragedy – hence the need for climate science and for the two catastrophic civilisation-destroying degrees.
Two degrees. They were forecasting 16°C here in the south of France yesterday and it was 26°C. If only I’d planted my tomatoes last month! The Méteo was 10°C out. Will I die? Will I f*ck. (Well of course I will, eventually. Another of the facts our consensus culture is designed to deny.)
Foreseeing the future is not a gift given to all. George Orwell, in “1984”, failed totally to
predict the world as it would be 36 years on. But he got so much right, by seeing (not foreseeing) that the marketing methods of capitalism, the moral fervour of communism, and the discipline of fascism were not fundamentally opposed, but could be combined to construct the worst of all possible worlds – forever.
Orwell expressed his pessimistic vision in the image of a jackboot grinding down liberty eternally. We can hope for something less soul-destroying. Perhaps a chorus of Ed Davey, Sir Paul Nurse and George Monbiot telling us to mend our ways, cut our consumption,and consider the lilies of the field (they toil not, nor do they emit much CO2) until the publication of the next IPCC report in 2018.
I’m not happy with that prospect. Of course, it’s not so drastic compared with the prospect facing your average Ukrainian; or the 50% of the young unemployed Greeks Italians or Spaniards.But it’s something worth combatting.