book review by simon schaffer
Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention edited by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow, Faber and Faber, London, pp 290.
This book is a collection of essays inspired by Charles Babbage's Difference Engine - a never-completed Victorian mechanical calculator which is often claimed as the ancestor of the modern PC. In London's Science Museum, a working version of this machine has pride of place in its computer exhibition. A few years ago, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling used Babbage's prototype computer as the theme of their sci-fi novel about an alternative Victorian England. Fascinated by this resurrected icon, the essays in Cultural Babbage use the Difference Engine as the starting-point for a discussion of the relationship between arts and science, especially in Britain. Its essays range from the intrguing, such as Alex Pang's examination of the Cold War origins of the geodesic dome, to the eccentric, such as Lavinia Greenlaw's musings on being the poet daughter of a doctor. The most interesting contributions to the book deal with the wonderful conceit at the centre of Gibson and Sterling's novel: the Difference Engine could have only been successfully built in Victorian England as an integral part of a social revolution.
In their essays, Tom Paulin and Neil Belton demonstrate how political conservatism has encouraged a deep-rooted hostility to science in this country. Despite being the first industrial nation, science in England has always been regarded with suspicion by those in power. Whether in Edmund Burke's rantings against the French Revolution, Aldous Huxley's literary snobbery or the present government's neo-liberal dogmas, the Promethean powers of invention are feared as levelling and democratic forces which could sweep away inherited privileges and traditional deference. Scientific procedures are far too rational and, worst of all, continental in their precision.
Echoing the analysis of Will Hutton and other 'New Labour' gurus, Paulin and Belton believe that the relative and absolute decline of British manufacturing industry has been caused by the semi- feudal political system defended by English conservatism. As a consequence, the key essays in this book champion a 'republican science' which combines technical innovation with political change. For instance, Jon Katz demonstrates the continued relevance of Tom Paine's republican politics in the age of the Net. Now the Difference Engine has evolved into the PC with a modem, we can finally realise Paine's vision of media freedom where everyone can publish their opinions and participate in politics without the interference of government or monopolists. As in Gibson and Sterling's novel, science and democracy can advance together.
However, this use of Babbage's Difference Engine as the symbol of 'republican science' is not without its difficulties. In his essay, Simon Schaffer shows how Babbage promoted the idea that the Difference Engine possessed some form of 'artifical intelligence'. Babbage was attracted to this deception because it concealed the human labour involved in the machine's construction. He could never bring himself to acknowledge his dependence on the skills of the trained engineers who built the intricate parts needed for the Difference Engine. Yet, the main reason why Babbage failed to build his famous calculator was his inability to collaborate with Joseph Clement, the master machinist. Far from being a model for 'republican science', the story of the Difference Engine could instead be seen as a prime example of how archaic class prejudices have accelerated the industrial decline of England. Whether real or imagined, we need to free ourselves from all varieties of 'Victorian values' if we are to realise the democratic potential of scientific modernism.
An edited version of this article appeared in New Scientist, 16th March 1996.