Wednesday 12 July 2023

Will we eventually feel nostalgic about petrol-driven cars, as we do now about steam? Definitely.

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

I spent last Sunday morning at the Sussex Steam Fair.

At Parham House, no less, which is an independent stately home and which is normally the preserve of the West Sussex upper crust.

It was a huge annual event, with a special area for tractors, and areas for small steam engines (past the cage of ferrets), immaculately restored caravans and the massive traction engines, which we had heard rumbling down our high street since Thursday, on their way there.

And all of them belching out steam and fumes, while people of a certain age hurried around with rags and oil cans.

The raft tent had a stall of people selling knitted teddies, and another one selling home-made buns, but otherwise just had old postcards and military junk.

I’m married to a textile designer and natural dyer, so most of my experience of Sussex craft tents has been very different – and involved a completely different clientele.

But if I sound cynical or patronising about it, that isn’t my intention, because it was also rather wonderful.

I had no idea that the southern home counties included such enthusiastic experts – amateurs in the best sense. Almost everyone there seemed to be an expert in something.

It was all a reminder of something peculiar about the human spirit, especially perhaps in England. A kind of individualistic refusal to bow to economic or political pressures. What else can explain the nostalgia for bygone technologies?

It doesn’t matter how much the economy tanks, and only bankers is the profession that can pay us enough to keep our heads above water.

It doesn’t matter if AI takes our jobs away – so that only a couple of roles are still considered ‘marketable’.

It doesn’t matter – at least as far as this is concerned – if the weather changes to make England more like the Sahara…

… People will still be able to specialise in what fascinates them. They will always remain awkwardly themselves, no matter what happens – and in the face of the ferocious opposition of technocratic governments, corporates and IT gods alike.

Because in the end, it is the sheer unpredictability of people that guarantees that we are free to choose.

As E. F. Schumacher wrote in Small is Beautiful exactly 50 years ago this summer: “A great shout of triumph goes up whenever anybody has found some further evidence – in physiology or psychology or sociology or economics or politics – of unfreedom, some further indication that people cannot help being what they are and doing what they are doing, no matter how inhuman their actions might be.”

He was quite right too. Why are the chattering classes so determined that the human spirit should be so limited that IT feels more intelligent?

In fact, I’m quite looking forward to the great nostalgia kick for our grandchildren – in the Petrol-Driven Car Rally, in half a century’s time.

Check out my new book, Oppenheimer: A world destroyed.


Laurence Cox said...

Yes, but I don't expect that our modern cars that are effectively computers on wheels will figure much in 50 years time. The delight will come from cars with spark plugs, distributor caps and tappets, all those analogue features where careful adjustment was important to get the machinery to perform.

David Boyle said...

You are probably right!