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Rants & Raves Technology

Are we learning yet?

Originally posted on Always-On

Consider the following: if error is the mother of creation, who’s the daddy?

Seriously though, while you’re here, you might as well as read on.

Recently another blog prompted me to put into words my way of thinking: I’m a optimistic pessimist. In the sense that if you expect the worst of everyone and everything, when things go right, you’re always due for a pleasant surprise.

We’re an odd species, we dance around comfortable in the pretend world of thinking that we know better than nature and that somehow, we will overcome the ‘flaws’ in nature and improve upon the grand scheme of things.

While this day may come, it’s not a day with a big fat red ring around it on any calendar in my lifetime. We’re still learning, and we’re still playing catch up.

Recently, I had the chance of putting my two-peneth [two pence worth] in on a BBC World News radio call in. I put forward the idea — that in my mind seems universally true — that people will continue to do bad things while ever doing bad things is easier, quicker and more profitable than doing the right thing.

In the case of the BBC radio phone-in, this idea was put within the context of the recent and on-going situation is Darfur, Sudan. To get the bad guys to play nice, you have to make being nice easier, quicker and more profitable than doing bad things.

It may over-simplify a complex problem, but the mechanics are sound, and this theory is true for many things, not least our continual abuse of our environment.

Why do we do this? And I ask this question in an inclusive sense since as consumers, we are all responsible to varying degrees.

The answer is painfully simple: because it’s easier, quicker and more profitable doing bad things and to do them with ignorance and / or impunity.

We now live in a world where we are more painfully aware of our errors than at any time, but we still allow the abuse to continue.

There’s many reasons for this, and this ‘blog isn’t even going to begin the insurmountable, nay, Herculean task of listing them, let alone forming any kind of critique of them.

I don’t know which is worse, not knowing and doing it anyway or knowing and still doing it regardless.

But there is light at the end of this circuitous and ever-ascending tunnel. Rather than believe we know better, we are now diligently watching and learning like any good child should do.

Take heart in a tiny organism by the name of Pseudomonas Putida strain CA-3. This little miracle, discovered by Kevin O’Connor and Patrick Ward of the Department of Industrial Microbiology at University College Dublin, Ireland, has the remarkable ability of using the highly toxic and far too abundant plastic, styrene as fuel to make a type of biodegradable plastic, Polyhydroxyalkanoate, known as PHA.

While this story hardly made a ripple with any of the mainstream press, it is an amazing discovery that demonstrates clearly how we are able not simply to learn from our mistakes, but take command of the mess and make good of it.

While, admittedly, the process is still quite crude, it offers the potential of removing a major pollutant from our world .. our world!

This is but a small step, but a significant one that fills me with a growing confidence in our largely too cocky species.

If we don’t succumb to one religious war or another, yet another virulent pandemic, premature ice age or apathy & indifference, we might just .. just be able to hand this world over to our children with pride rather than shame…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

3 replies on “Are we learning yet?”

“To get the bad guys to play nice, you have to make being nice easier, quicker and more profitable than doing bad things.

It may over-simplify a complex problem, but the mechanics are sound, and this theory is true for many things”

That theory sounds right, and is very attractive, but unfortunately, sufficient evidence proves otherwise. I listen to my wife (shock horror news!) most days tell me about the kids she teaches who consistently find difficult, awkward and bloody nasty things to do, when it would be much easier and better for them to just follow the rules. You might say that they’re kids and haven’t learned yet. But, actually there are enough environmental factors (not to mention any genetic factors anybody wants to raise if you believe it), that affect us all throughout our lives that mean we often do things “the hard way”. Don’t tell me you’ve never been bloody minded at times – I know I have (hey, who said “all the time”?). We call it cutting off your nose to spite your face!

I don’t think the scenario is any different for world leaders than it is for the children – they are people – perverse, warped, bizarre, difficult, damaged, people. And they will do what people do – no matter how much you incentivise them!

The best bet is the “hope we can fix it after we break it” plan. Maybe we can.

(oh and by the way, I presume by “surcome” you meant “succumb”)

“That theory sounds right, and is very attractive, but unfortunately, sufficient evidence proves otherwise. I listen to my wife (shock horror news!) most days tell me about the kids she teaches who consistently find difficult, awkward and bloody nasty things to do, when it would be much easier and better for them to just follow the rules.”

Fair enough, but then you answer your own question…

“Don’t tell me you’ve never been bloody minded at times – I know I have (hey, who said “all the time”?)”

That’s kids for you!

To them, efficiency is either an alien concept or just really subjective.

Being a kid is being in a different world. What with peer pressure among other things.

Easier and efficiency don’t equate to best…

Damn good post, that, and I’ve got to agree with everything you said.

I’ve long argued with the missus about stuff like recycling, switching lights off and other environmental issues and her response always used to be “Well, one won’t make a difference” and then they started showing that energy advert when one person says the same, and then another, and another until it’s a deafening chorus – cemented my arguments with her quite well.

And I love the word “Herculean”.

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