The New Victoriana

In 1997 I wrote a piece for the long lost and much missed Rewired about a cover story from Wired. It was one of the first pieces I wrote which appeared online, and it’s probably one of the angriest things I’ve ever written. Although reading the Wired piece back I think I might have been a bit harsh, I think I on to something.

Originally published on Rewired, July 7th 1997

Wired 5.07 arrived late in Britain, a couple of weeks after it had first hit the streets of San Francisco. When it did make it, when I finally got around to reading Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden’s cover feature, my reaction was that if they wanted to print a piece of science fiction, why didn’t they get Arthur C. Clarke to write it?

The biggest problem with the feature is that Schwartz, whose well-known views frame the article, only wants to think to one level of difficulty, and his determination to be optimistic makes him refuse to think beyond that. For example, technology will save the environment because “infotech… makes much less impact on the natural world.” And yes, at the simplest level he’s right — the environmental impact of sending something digitally rather than via FedEx is lower.

But this ignores the environmental cost of creating the infrastructure in the first place. Where do all those plastics used in PCs come from? How much water is wasted and polluted in the process of PC and chip manufacture? Problems like these are simply ignored by Schwartz, who would presumably just wave his magic techno-wand and make them go away.

Another example is transportation; Schwartz sings the praises of the hydrogen cell. He ignores the technological problems that need to be solved — fair enough, within the boundaries of this work of “speculation” — but then claims that “the only waste product [is] water.” Yes, at the end of the line — from the car itself — that’s true. But what are the waste products of producing the hydrogen cells in the first place? What is the environmental impact of all that additional water in the atmosphere?

An even worse error is ignoring the impact of the simple production of more cars. When the combined populations of China and India are rich enough to afford the Western standard of a car or two (or more) per family, then you have an awful lot of steel, aluminium, and copper to find somewhere. What’s the impact of the additional mining, smelting, more factories, and so on? These issues, the less obvious ones, are the most important of all — and Schwartz ignores them.

To add insult to injury, the cover line, “We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom and a better environment for the whole world,” doesn’t even reflect the feature. Schwartz’s approach to Africa is typical of this; while the developed world gets ever richer, Africa gets biological warfare, ethnic conflict, and increased poverty (except, of course, in ‘enlightened’ South Africa). The only solution is the eventual intervention of the rest of the world.

Yeah, of course what Africa really needs is more intervention from white men. As if the West’s interventions in Africa for the past 300 years haven’t been damaging enough. Schwartz appears to see the problems of Africa in total isolation from the rest of the world, as if the exploitation of African resources by the West wasn’t continuing to damage the African economy — and, incidentally, provide us rich folk with some of the cheap commodities we take for granted. As if the problems of Africa could be cured by a quick dose of Western culture. As if “enlightened” multinational companies didn’t continue to prop up oppressive dictatorships in order to ensure that business continues smoothly — without the troublesome peasants complaining about the destruction of their livelihoods and environment in the race for “progress”.

Schwartz is just as dumb about Europe, and is particularly naive about Britain. Yes, Britain’s official unemployment rate is much lower than much of the rest of Europe’s — but that has more to do with the way that successive governments have massaged the figures, rather than any huge reduction in unemployment. School leavers, people on training schemes, anyone over 55 — all are excluded from the figures, which makes our level look marvellous. A better measure might have been the OECD’s economic rankings, which Britain has been sliding down for two decades, or that the poorest 10% of Britain’s people are poorer in real terms than they were 20 years ago (while the richest 1% are much, much richer).

But Schwartz evidently doesn’t keep up with European news. Far from Britain being the only “laggard” in the race towards the single European currency, it looks likely that no one will be ready for 1999. Even Germany and France, the two bulwarks of the Euro, are set to fail to meet the economic criteria for entry into the single currency. Schwartz would claim that this is due to their welfare state systems; others, perhaps less ideologically committed to the destruction of welfare states, might point to the crazy cost of pan-European initiatives like the Common Agricultural Policy.

But all that can be avoided by that old fashioned panacea, “strong leadership”. Yes, the people of Europe must suffer when their welfare systems are dismantled, and if they complain strong leaders will push them forward. No matter what they want, this is good for them. This is where Schwartz starts to turn the stomach, but it gets worse.

The crisis in China caused by the difference in wealth between the city dwellers and the peasantry is avoided, by authorities “occasionally using draconian measures”. This offhand way of describing torture and oppression sickens. I wonder whether Peter has ever read an Amnesty International report about China, where one of the favorite “draconian methods” is to insert an electric “crowd control baton” (read as “cattle prod”) into the vagina or anus and turn it on, full blast?

Perhaps in the big picture world that Schwartz lives in, such oppression doesn’t matter. After all, if you can convince yourself that utopia is just around the corner, that all we have to do is be optimistic, then it’ll all be worth it in the end. Sure, this Long March will have some casualties, but what revolution is bloodless? The fact that, once again, the casualties will be the poorest and weakest people in the world doesn’t appear to matter to him.

In the “Goofy Leftists Sniping at Wired” topic in The Well’s Wired conference, I called Wired’s revolution “a nasty Victorian counter-revolution”. Schwartz’ feature typifies that new Victoriana, with its attitude to Africa with its calls for “strong leadership”, with its optimism about progress, and ironically, given the “global” nature of Schwartz’ vision, its flag waving for a particular nation. Yes, the dear old USA, the country that’s “first among equals” must lead the way into this techno-utopia, guiding those backward folks in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.

Just as Britain saw itself as the guardian of the world’s affairs in the last century, a shining beacon of civilization that would bring order and good conduct to the world, so the strong leadership of the US will enlighten us all.

Well excuse me, Peter, but some of us want no part of another age of Victorians. Some of us “just don’t get it”; and don’t want it, either.

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