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Pathfinders: Symptoms of Anachronitis

A revolutionary change is currently sending shockwaves through the US Navy, to wit, the announcement that they are dropping the requirement for all official communications to be issued in capital letters (BBC News Technology, 13 June). A message sent to all commands (in capitals, naturally) has advised that in future signals may use a mixture of upper and lower cases. This is part of a cost-cutting initiative to move much of the Navy’s information traffic to common-or-garden email systems. A wag at a London-based think tank observes sardonically ‘The US Navy has made up its mind that not everything is a crisis and some messages are just normal,’ but then, clearly unable to resist outright sarcasm, ‘This will introduce a degree of literary criticism into military communication… many senior officers think that the younger ones don't know how to use capitals anyway, which is to say they either use far too many or not at all.’

Email users know very well that ALL CAPS FEELS LIKE SHOUTING, so US sailors must be a browbeaten lot, but the real reason behind the traditional use of capitals was simply that the original 19th century teletype machines did not have lower case letters. It’s what they call a legacy system. By a curious coincidence, the world is only now about to see its last telegram, as the India state telegraph service finally shuts down its operations this month.

Legacy is a funny thing. One of the innovations introduced by Steve Jobs at Apple was to make computer icons resemble real world objects in order for their functions to be more intuitive, a device known as skeuomorphism. Thus a delete function was represented by a wastepaper basket, a recording facility by a microphone and so on. Often the icons were somewhat whimsically old-fashioned, so that a word processing program could be represented by a quill pen, for example, or a show desktop function by, mysteriously, an ink blotter. This skeuomorphic principle is currently in the process of being jettisoned at Apple, where mandarins are keen on a post-Jobsworth design reboot partly because, they say, the younger generation is failing to recognise what the icons represent as their real world counterparts fall into disuse.

Not everyone is convinced that people under the age of forty have no idea what a reel-to-reel tape recorder looks like, or are unable to recognise an old-fashioned Bakelite telephone icon in the era of smartphones. Young people watch old movies, don’t they? But what rings true in principle is not only the fact that things become obsolete and we fail to recognise them as such, but that when we do recognise things as obsolete we perversely love them all the more for it. The old and knackered are reborn as sentimental icons, antiques and shabby chic, and not just material goods. Our civilisation is marinated in the obsolete, rotten with it, in language, law, logic and tradition, a kind of social anachronitis.

Why else do graduates ponce around in absurd Batman capes with silly hats, holding ‘scrolls’? Why else, in an age of digital photography, would the physicist Peter Higgs be ‘honoured’ recently by having his portrait painted? Why do judges, in an effort to be taken seriously, wear 18th century-style fancy dress? Our most atavistic impulses seem to lurk in the deepest parts of our brain, right down in the reptilian cortex, where our conscious rational minds have no dominion.

Can you see where this argument is going yet? Chief reptile David Cameron has lately struck a limp blow for frontal lobe thinking by announcing a £1m ‘grand innovation prize’ to solve the ‘biggest problem of our time’ (BBC News Politics, 14 June). And just what might that problem be, the pundits ask? That, declares the Prime Minister, is a matter ‘to be identified by the public’. Well, trust a millionaire not to know.

The ‘biggest problem of our time’ and the ‘grand innovation’ to solve it? Let’s see…

Ok, you know what’s coming next, don’t you? Of course you do. Capitalism itself, an economic system based on competitive selfishness in a world that can’t afford it any more, an anachronistic legacy of scarcity and the age of steam, that’s the ‘biggest problem’ by far. An economy that sets human against human and country against country to create a few gilded sultans amid a sea of squalor, that is the problemo numero uno that the public should identify. And the innovation? It follows naturally enough - the abolition of the private property basis of this economy, and with it trading, markets, money, banks, hierarchical nation states, and all the rest of it.

That’s what we would say, isn’t it?

But summon our arguments how we may, we’re not going to win that prize money, no sirree. And why? Because it’s an unfair contest and Cameron’s Cast of Clowns hates socialists? Nope, because we’re wrong.

Capitalism isn’t the biggest problem of our time, because there’s an even bigger problem, and it’s already been alluded to. We are addicted to the past. We stand before the past like an actor against a backdrop and think that it defines us and determines what we are. We think we need the past and that we can’t be anything without it. We don’t see the world for what it is because we are obsessed with what it was. People say our civilisation is backward but that’s not right. It’s pathologically backwardly compatible.

There is a saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but that’s not always true. Sometimes there’s an obstacle in front of you. What’s required then is not a step, but a jump. The single greatest difficulty, and also the greatest virtue, of the socialist case is that it demands a leap to clear the entanglements of the legacy-strewn present. But to make the leap, unless it’s some blind and mad leap of faith, requires looking ahead into the future, coolly and clearly, and gauging the distance and the necessary run-up.

That’s what science aims to do, and that’s just what society isn’t doing. That’s why reformists are on a treadmill of sameness, forever in motion but never moving. That’s why we are buried up to our necks in useless legacy. Capitalism is not the biggest problem, because that could be overthrown tomorrow. How to make people look forward instead of back, that’s the real challenge of our times.