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12 February 2004 Edition

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Why republicans should care about science

I realise that I will have to argue for this, but I think it is a worthwhile exercise. As republicans on this island we have been, for generations, concerned with human progress — basically, the democratisation of this island. The 1916 Proclamation is, in its essence, about the establishment of a structure, The Republic, which will allow the Irish people to express their will free of foreign interference.

That organisational evolution has been part of the human story; so has technology. Indeed, they go hand in hand.

Democracy, mass participatory democracy, not the Greek version, is unthinkable without mass literacy. Literacy does not predate the invention of the printing press and the mass production of books. People can't vote in polling booths until they can read election literature. Anywhere elections are tried in populations where literacy levels are low, it's chaos.

Get the idea? Good.

The development of technology has been the human story. Only humans, among all the species that inhabit this planet, use tools to the extent we do. Our primate cousins also use tools — the extent to which their use of tools is limited limits their advance as a species. We are the next evolutionary step.

Have you seen the movie, 2001 A Space Odyssey? If you have, you get the idea. We are descended from Hominids who realised that having something in your hand — even if it was only a sharpened stick — improved your chances against some beast of the forest or, indeed, against a rival from the neighbouring tribe.

Thus, the journey to develop technology enabled man to increasingly leave his mark on the planet. We are all the descendants of successful ancestors who mastered the rudimentary technology in hunting and in war to give them the crucial edge.

The Irish landscape that I grew up with is a product of a simple, stunning, planet-altering invention 10,000 years ago — the plough. It ended the spear as the main source of food. It allowed humans to stay in one place for generation upon generation.

It gave us buildings, priests, castles and tradesmen. More children survived. Populations grew. Surpluses were established, grain stored. Not everyone had to work for food. Elites started to be established.

There had always been a leader; now various, well, parasitical job descriptions started to emerge. We're talking priests here. Bull McCabe was no anthropologist, but in the Field he gave it to the Sagairt right between the eyes: "No priest starved during the famine, Father!"

So from one simple invention — the plough — agriculture and settled living emerged. It even had an effect on human physiology. The Blood Group 'A' is believed to have evolved after people started to eat a steady diet of crops instead of what their ancestors had survived on — hunted meat, foraged berries and plants.

All of that from the plough. Without it, the human story would be totally and utterly different today.

In the story of our species, 10,000 years is nothing. In that context, the last 200 years read like a millisecond, yet the technological progress in that short period has been stunning.

Technology is one of the main engines of history — pun entirely intentional. The Romans invented the steam engine. Had they also mastered the technology of pipe welding, then they could have generated the motive force of steam. When the Roman Empire fell, technological advances stopped and went into reverse. The accomplishments of Roman civil engineers and architects were lost for 1,000 years.

It was a cautionary tale for humanity that stuck with the great and the not-so-good throughout the succeeding 1,000 years; they had all that and it went. Primarily, what was lost was technology.

Think 1916. Think of the technology that the men and women of 1916 lived with and utilised in their struggle against the Evil Empire. Now think what our own Volunteers faced in terms of electronic surveillance. No comparison.

As we head for the centenary of the Rising, has there been 100 years in human history where everything has been so changed, changed utterly?

Remove technology from any equation that attempts to explain that change and the equation collapses.

I remember a quote from a 1977 book by Ackroyd, Margolis, Rosenhead and Shallice, entitled The Technology of Political Control, stating that practical mass surveillance was probably some way off, or words to that effect. That sentence made me feel good. That was then.

Well is it practical now? Not only is the technology wonderful and life enhancing, but what of the applications it is put to by our lords and masters like Blair and the big companies?

In this occasional series, I will look at what looms for us on the technology front.

It would be a mistake, comrades, to think that this series will be a wee light read, a break from the struggle, from the political project we are involved with. It is, in many ways, central to it.

The last two years in the global village has been dominated, of course, by the Anglo-American invasion and conquest of Iraq. That invasion has its roots not in 9/11 but in Henry Ford's development of the Model T and the US economy's organisation around cheap and plentiful oil supplies. At some point they would not be able to supply their own needs - that becomes apparent after the First World War. It is no coincidence that the US's first faltering steps as a baby superpower happened at that time, with their input to the Treaty of Versailles. The Brits also moved then have their main weapons systems Dreadnought class battle cruisers switched to oil from coal.

Suddenly the lands held by the crumbling Ottoman Empire started to become sexy to more than just archaeologists.

Oil spells the destiny of all our brothers and sisters on the Arab street. It maps out the need for a 'Zionist Ulster in sea of Arab fenianism' (Churchill). It is no coincidence that the big boys became interested in the establishment of Israel when the importance of oil put it in the centre of the golden crescent, where all the world's known oil supplies were at that point in the human story.

These words blink to life thanks to the technology of the Cold War.

For the main engine of technological advance is war — the locomotive of all human history. For in the struggle for resources between competing groups of humans, it is war that settles things.

Currently, sustainable energy projects are being held up by the influence of the oil companies. The Kyoto accord was not signed up to by the planet's biggest polluter, the US, because it would have been bad for the oil companies.

Wars are usually about resources. Resources that are worth fighting over have to be coloured by the current state of science at that point in human history.

The Bronze Age settlements of Europe were established by the victors — like the ancient Celts, who sought to secure the deposits of copper and tin nearby that made the magical bronze for swords and shields. Then came iron swords and other resources, other places, became valuable and, ipso facto, worth fighting for.

In the coming occasional series, I will be looking at what technological advances might be just over the horizon and what they might mean for the political landscape we inhabit.

Not only will I be looking at what technological advances might be upon us, but also how they will be applied within a profit economy.

Here are some examples.

The modern pharmaceutical industry has developed drugs that allow people to live relatively full lives who, in previous generations, would have been incarcerated in appalling asylums. Now, debilitating conditions like schizophrenia can be dealt with — if not cured — by the use of psychotropic drugs. However, in a profit economy, the pharmaceutical giants influence psychiatry through their largesse, research grants, freebie conferences and the like. So people are kept on higher doses for longer than they really need to. The embattled, wonderful people of Cuba have developed an effective vaccine for the child killer meningitis. However, they are embargoed so that the EU — in the pay of vultures — will not allow it into the EU unless they get a slice of the action. Cuba would sell it to the world at cost price for humanitarian reasons.

So this series will look at not only what technological advances are possible for humanity, but how the corporate world restricts and retards the benefits for humanity in order to maximise profit.

So to conclude this homily, comrades, the human story is, in large part, the story of technological advance. Periods of human history with great technological change are usually marked by great social change.

So you go get me a republican who isn't interested in the foregoing and I'll show you a comrade in dire need of re-education. Come to think of it, just make them read this science and technology column — coming your way soon.

An Phoblacht
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