Lest we forget


The scar that the First World War left on the history of the twentieth century is almost immeasurable.  Even now, divided from those events by almost a century, the names of the battles fought in that conflict - the Somme, Verdun, Passendale, Vimy Ridge, Gallipoli - are still capable of haunting the imagination and have become bywords for slaughter on a near inconceivable scale and suffering of a level that seems almost beyond human endurance. Even now, it is near impossible not to be moved by the memories of the very last surviving veterans of that conflict. 

The First World War is instructive for those considering technology. It was the perverted conclusion of an optimistic period in human history, where new technology was regarded as a great social good, fuelling economic growth, curing disease, making life easier and creating the first mass consumption economies. However, the same technology and associated modes of production could be turned to more malevolent purposes - the machine gun, poison gas, artillery and the bomber plane were as much a product of industrialisation as were the steam train, vaccines, the Hoover and the Ford Model T. The scale of production employed in the war was quite staggering. To take one example, by the end of the conflict, the total amount of barbed wire on the 400-miles of the Western Front would have stretched around the equator four-and-a-half times. The growing technological and industrial capabilities of the developed world had long outstripped the capabilities of leaders and generals to understand the destructive potential of their states when coupled with those new technologies. And the supreme, tragic irony: technology that had been developed in the name of progress ultimately had exactly the opposite impact - it reduced men to living in the blasted, blooded earth, surviving in the most bestial conditions.

Now we are on the cusp of a new technological epoch, possibly one as important and dramatic as the industrial revolution. Already there are signs of the potential dangers that it creates, and surely there will be more significant and damaging ones to follow in the coming decades.  This isn't a call for technological conservatism or luddism, let me be clear about that. Instead, I am arguing that with technological developments comes a huge responsibility to understand the implications and ramifications of those changes, and to prepare ourselves for them. The First World War provides a terrifying example of what can happen when societies fail to do this.