Monthly articles (English and French) on the theme "Querying economic orthodoxy"

No. 42 - June 2009

Technology in reverse


To innovate is not to reform.
Edmund Burke, A Letter to a Noble Lord (1796)

From the farmyard to the nanotehcnology laboratory, from the garden to the organ-loft, reaction arises against the adverse effects of innovation.

Tradition in the organ-loft

Some years ago, visiting the beautiful church of St Margaret Lothbury, in the City of London, I found the organ-builders (1) at work, reconstructing an old organ which George Pike England first built there in 1825. I remember vividly the curious feeling that, had I been able to go there in 1801 to encounter Mr England, I would have seen almost exactly what I saw in 1984. For the rebuilders were setting up an organ in precisely the same way as organs were built in the early nineteenth century.

What they were doing is not uncommon in the organ world today. New instruments are often built on strictly traditional lines. But this does not mean that organ-building is a static craft that has never changed its ways since the days of Bach or of Mendelssohn. On the contrary, like every human activity, it has gone through drastic changes in the past couple of hundred years.

A formidable mechanism

Traditional or 'classical' organs are, behind the scenes, a little like old-style railway signal-boxes. They have complex frameworks of rods, levers and wires linking the keys, pedals and stop-knobs to the moving parts that admit wind to the pipes. Since a big organ may have four or five keyboards, each with around 60 keys, plus 30 pedals, well over 50 stops and several thousand pipes, we are talking about quite a formidable piece of machinery. The earliest instruments that we would recognise as large organs were built in the sixteenth century; at that time, they were probably the most complicated manmade devices in existence.

Mechanical transmission gives the organist direct and instantaneous control over the wind, but in a big organ the action can be excessively heavy to the touch. So, in the nineteenth century, it was superseded by pneumatic controls, which replaced the rods (trackers) and levers with compressed air passing through thin lead tubes. In the twentieth century, electricity took over. The organ of St Margaret Lothbury had electrical action for many years. Now it has gone back to its roots - and it is well worth hearing.

That organ is just one example among many. The old mechanism has widely returned to favour, partly because it is the most reliable and easily maintained, partly because many organists prefer its hands-on, immediate, physical link between key and pipe. With pneumatic systems, delay in response can be serious - sometimes even as much as a full second. It is disconcerting to put down a chord and hear the sound emerge after such a lapse of time. It is even worse to play a rapid run of notes with the organ trailing you by several semiquavers.

Technology in reverse

The small, esoteric trade of organ-building provides a striking example of a phenomenon that is becoming more and more prevalent. After a couple of centuries of headlong technological change, we are now feeling the need to undo many of our changes and go back to older ways. We are seeing 'technological reversal' on a big scale: the rejection, in disappointment at their consequences, of many of the exciting innovations of the twentieth, or even nineteenth, centuries.

Supersonic air travel has disappeared for the foreseeable future since Concorde was put out to pasture. Given the need to save energy and to reduce emission of pollutants, it is hard to see how that beautiful but wasteful bird could be replaced by any currently known technology.

Farmers and gardeners are beginning to abandon sophisticated chemical fertilisers and pesticides because of their harmful effects. Jean-Charles Noudell, one of the head-gardeners in charge of the beautifully-kept Parisian parks, explains (1): before, in order to have brilliant flowers and plants, we used far too many chemical treatments. In our working gear, we looked like astronauts, people stared at us. Today, we have gone back to the old ways, like some farmers.

Demand for free-range chickens and eggs reflects a rejection of modern intensive farming techniques, which can be cruel to the animals and are considered as possible contributors to epidemics such as the current outbreak of swine flu.

Buy a pot of jam and you will quite likely find on the label the words: no artificial additives or preservatives. (In the French version of this piece, you won't find the word préservatif. In French, that means a condom!) The absence of what were once seen as modern improvements is now a selling point.

Distrust of new products

Indeed, the chemicals industry today finds itself to some extent under siege. Public opinion regards it with distrust, even anger, because so many of its innovative products are now suspected of impairing our health, of damaging or destroying plant and animal species, of harming our environment in various ways. A recent conference in Geneva added nine persistent organic pollutants to the Stockholm Convention (2) list of noxious chemicals, use of which should be phased out because they can cause cancers or damage to human nervous, immune and reproductive systems. These chemicals are used as pesticides, as flame retardants, in treatment of wood and textiles, in hydraulic fluids and in the manufacture of electrical and electronic products.

There appears to be little hard evidence of harm caused by eating genetically-modified foods; nevertheless, public concern on this subject is widespread. In France, some fruits and vegetables are now labeled as being GM-free, and this labeling may be extended to animal products. People are quite naturally worried that this technology could throw up serious problems, which might not become evident for many years; by then, GM crops might be so well-established that it would be very difficult to eliminate them.

The potential risks of nanotechnology are perhaps greater. This is the use of materials that are broken down into extremely fine particles, far smaller than those of ordinary powders; generally of diameter not more than 100 nanometres, ie one ten-thousandth of a millimetre. Many substances, when treated like this, acquire abnormal properties, eg copper in nanoparticulate form is super-hard rather than ductile, while nanoparticulate gold is not golden; it appears dark red or black. These exceptionally tiny particles are potentially dangerous because of their unfamiliar properties and because their minute size enables them to penetrate easily into human tissues, where they may have unpredictable consequences.

A perverse reaction - or a healthy one?

The current reaction against new technologies may seem perverse, yet we have reason to be concerned about their possible consequences. We have seen already too much damage done by our hasty adoption of new techniques with precious little thought about their long-term effects.

This is an unhappy feature of our highly competitive societies. We are accustomed to being told that intense rivalry speeds innovation, and that this is admirable; indeed, necessary for survival in an economy where he who falls behind goes bust. But the problems of innovation-induced disease and damage should make us question our reckless encouragement of uninhibited competition.

Let us return to the concert-hall for a final thought. Organ-builders have relearnt the art of making organs as they were made in Bach's time. What if composers were to relearn the art of writing beautiful melodies as Bach and his contemporaries wrote them?

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1 The St Margaret's organ was rebuilt in 1984 by John Budgen.

2 Report by Gaëlle Dupont, Le Monde, 3 mai 2009

3 The Stockholm Convention is an international treaty which came into force in 2004. It has been signed by 152 countries and ratified or accepted by 164, including most European Union countries, China and India. However, some major states, including the United States and Russia, though they are signatories to the Convention, have not yet ratified it.