I Want to Believe

In which The Author trusts the evidence of his senses

In Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 5) I mentioned my old school pal Ian P., whom I bumped into in the pub last night. I know from experience that he’s a bit of a Bible-basher when he’s had a few pints, so I was wary of getting dragged into another pointless argument on issues which we’re never going to agree on. In the event, I got off lightly. Ian admitted that he’d rehearsed his case the previous night, in a different pub, with another old classmate, Matt L. There really wasn’t much point in doing it again.
The catalyst for this potential difference of opinion was a throwaway remark he’d made when he saw me photographing the blackboard advertising next week’s musical entertainment. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that people of my age group and older (in Aberdare, anyway) fall into three broad groups, which I will loosely define as follows:
  • Techies
  • Reluctant 21st Century Boys and Girls
  • Loteks
The Techies (and I include myself amongst them) are the sort of chaps (and we are usually chaps, let’s be honest) who enthusiastically embraced computers and all the possibilities they opened up when we were young. We’re happy to use the Internet, have a fair grasp of digital technology (even if we can’t afford all the gear we’d like), use several email addresses for different purposes, and can sometimes be found acting as unpaid and unofficial Tech Support in pubs and other places.
The Reluctant 21st Century Boys and Girls are people who have forced themselves to come to terms with ‘new’ technology – which has actually been around in various guises for the best part of four decades. Here’s one example: Martin H. was a victim of the technophobia which haunts his generation for a long time. Once his laptop died and I installed Ubuntu Linux in order to resurrect it, he soon got over his fear, and now he’s quite happy to go online and potch about. (His smartphone, however, is quite a different matter!) One of the old guys in the pub told me last week how much he was enjoying the Intermediate Computing course he’s signed up for. That’s a huge leap forward for him.
Many other Reluctant Users have only accepted technology into their lives because they’ve been pushed into it, usually because of external pressures. Work, or a college course, or their kids’ homework, or the government’s Digital By Default agenda, has forced them to get with the program (no pun intended.) They’re the unwilling victims of Granotechnology. Have a look through some of the entries I’ve posted since finishing work in May 2009 and you’ll get an idea of the situation I’m describing.
Loteks is a term I’ve borrowed from the SF author William Gibson. I first came across it in the film Johnny Mnemonic (although I tried reading the story on its first publication in 1981 it totally defeated me, as I recounted in OMNIscience.)
Even in the year 2013, there are still a staggering number of people like this around. Granotechnology doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s not even nanotechnology. It’s more NO-NO-TECHNOLOGY in most cases. The Valleys version of the Loteks are themselves divided into a number of camps: those who only use the bare minimum of digital technology because they have no choice; those who are terrified of taking the plunge into this brave new world; those who are convinced that getting involved with computers can only bring misery; and people like Ian.
Here’s how our conversation started: I’d taken the photo of the blackboard so that I could include it in yesterday’s blog post. Ian asked me what I was going to do with it.
I said, ‘In a few minutes, anyone with an internet connection will be able to see that picture.’
‘Anyone in Aberdare?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I told him, ‘anyone anywhere in the world.’
‘But you’re not going to get someone from Bangladesh coming in here to watch the singer, are you?’ he countered.
‘If Shanara hadn’t moved to Cardiff, you’d be surprised,’ I replied.
[A digression: I was watching an episode of Torchwood this afternoon, where Jack and Toshiko find themselves trapped in the year 1941. They walk into a large dancehall where a group of servicemen on leave are charming the Cardiff girls. Tosh looks around warily and asks Jack how she’s expected to blend in.
‘You look the part,’ she protests. ‘I’m the only Asian here.’
‘Relax,’ Jack tells her, ‘you’re with the captain.’
Shanara the Dippy Bint and I had a very similar conversation the day I had my university offer. She was the first person I saw when I got off the bus in Trecynon, and I told her we had to go to the pub to celebrate. We’d been to a couple of pubs in Cardiff before, but we’d never tried one closer to home. As we walked through the forecourt of the Welsh Harp, she ‘did a Tosh’ on me.
‘Will they have seen an Asian person before?’ she asked quietly.
‘Of course they have,’ I said. ‘They’ve all got televisions!’
Call me the captain…]
Anyway, Ian told me last night that he ‘doesn’t believe in technology.’
At the time, he was keeping half an eye on the rugby on the large plasma TV on the wall of the pub. I asked him how he’d have watched the game without that particular technology. He started backtracking, saying that he wasn’t against all technology, just some of it. I told him that, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to pick and choose which technology to keep and which to discard.
As James Burke made clear in the final programme of his superb TV series Connections, science doesn’t proceed in straight lines. If anything, it does exactly the opposite. How do you decide which avenue of research is worth following, and which ones you can ignore?

Ian continued to argue that he didn’t ‘believe in’ any technology, so I asked him how he could deny the evidence of his own senses.
I told him, ‘You can’t not “believe” in it – it’s all around you, it’s surrounded you your whole life.’ (That was the point where the Generator of Organic Diversity reared his head. I told him that I didn’t believe in God, because I had yet to see the physical evidence.)
Then I asked him how he managed to get to work in the morning. He works in the Rhymney Valley, so walking to work would be out of the question. Anything more advanced than that would be out of bounds for him, after all. He wouldn’t see sense, though. I told him that, in order for him to be satisfied, we’d have to turn back the clock twelve thousand years. We’d have to return to a nomadic herding lifestyle, like the Saami people of northern Europe, or the Bakhtiari people whom Jacob Bronowski discussed in The Ascent of Man:

The point is, though, that to stay in this prelapsarian utopia, Ian’s distant ancestors would have had to kill the man or woman who first tried using a sharpened stick or a piece of bone to plough the soil, thereby triggering the whole history of technology over the last six or seven thousand years. Ian continued to maintain that he didn’t ‘believe’ in technology. After a while I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I left him to it.
My reductio ad absurdum argument was completely lost on Ian. Thinking about it today, he lost me a long time before that. Let’s try and analyze the situation sensibly for a moment. He’s prepared to blindly ‘believe in’ an omniscient, omnipotent creator, in a beautiful afterlife for the righteous and eternal torment for the wicked, in angels and miracles and all sorts of associated unproven (and unprovable) ideas. But, by his own admission, he ‘doesn’t believe in’ something which has surrounded him ever since the day he was born.
For fuck’s sake, we had our vaccinations when we were kids, so that we didn’t succumb to one of the many childhood diseases which used to ravage the population every so often. I forgot to ask him whether his own kids had had their vaccinations. Maybe they didn’t need them. Maybe Ian’s faith alone got them through their first five years. I doubt it, though…
After thinking about this again today, I’m going to set the record straight. There’s an enormous difference between not ‘liking’ something and not ‘believing’ in it, isn’t there? I don’t believe in Father Xmas, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. After all, there’s a complete lack of physical or empirical evidence to support the frequent claims of their existence. I think God probably comes into the same category. I don’t know Ian’s views on the rest of them, but if he accepts one then I feel that he’s logically compelled to accept the existence of the others.
When it comes to contentious issues such as evolution and climate change, I defer to the weight of the scientific arguments. As for the unknowables like UFOs, ESP, time travel, and so forth, I’m awaiting further data before I shape my hypotheses accordingly. At least these things might prove amenable to further examination by the scientific method – which is more than can be said for a bearded bloke on a white fluffy cloud, ticking off everyone’s sins in a big book.
All of which brings me to the most stupid advertising slogan I’ve seen for years: the Barnardo’s charity campaign slogan Do you believe in children?
Of course I fucking do – they’re everywhere! You only have to get on a train or walk into a shop to have concrete proof of their existence. If the question was supposed to be Do you have faith in children? – well, that’s a different matter entirely. I don’t think faith and belief are synonyms, and I don’t think they shouldn’t be used as such.
Ian would argue the point, of course – believe me!

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