The Arrogance Of Ignorance

Britain’s EU referendum was an educational experience in the sense that I no longer have any expectation that people in positions of authority and influence will have any more knowledge or be any better informed than I am.

In many cases, politicians and journalists, in particular, are clearly less informed than they should be. The persistent confusion over basic definitions including the “EU”, “EEA”, “EFTA” and the “EU Customs Union”—even after six months of Brexit topping the political agenda—is too common to be born of anything other than ignorance.

If you know a bit about the organisations and agreements these terms describe, the meanings of the associated labels are unambiguous. Yet the Diplomatic Editor for the Guardian newspaper, the appointed campaign groups (Leave and Remain) and even the Prime Minister herself are apparently incapable of clear communication.

By way of summary, EFTA members, three of which (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) participate in the Single Market via the EEA agreement, are not bound by the Common External Tariff or the Common Commercial Policy. EU policies only apply to EU Member States. Outside of the EU, the UK will enjoy the same freedom to negotiate trade agreements as all other non-EU Member States, as well as full self-representation on the global standards-setting bodies which are at the heart of the multilateral trading system.

Even that level of detail seems to elude our politicians and the legacy news-media.

Prior to the referendum campaign, I used to wonder what game people like John Redwood and David Cameron were really playing. Now I just presume that they do not know any better. They live in an unreal world—let’s call it “the bubble”—and their false assertions and poor argumentation are born of that limitation.

It was while reading a book about the history of the PC that the idea finally “clicked”. The book was full of lots of details with which I was already familiar, but the story was well told, and then, like a hammer, it stuck me; many of the real innovators in the computer world, aware of Moore’s Law since the 1960s, wrongly presumed that the business and engineering people at IBM were “holding back” PC technology for “political reasons”. The people who the personal computing pioneers presumed were in the best position to understand the revolution that was obviously underway didn’t know what was going on, as IBM demonstrated in its dealings with Microsoft and the “PC clones” later on.

The Altair 8800 was introduced in January, 1975, six years before IBM launched the first “Personal Computer (PC)”. The Apple I followed the Altair to market in 1976, and by the time IBM understood what was happening, the home computer industry had already been largely colonised by hippie-adventurers, operating mainly out of the west coast of the USA.

Ted Nelson, the man who coined the term “hypertext” and envisioned much of the modern networked world before it existed, tells the story thusly:

I’m conspiracy-minded. From 1970 to about 1979, I thought that IBM was deliberately suppressing personal computing. I later learned that they didn’t have a clue. They thought that computers had to be run by big departments. I found this out in the late ’70s when they asked me to consult on whether they should get into personal computing.

Ironically, 20 years later, with the Internet nascent but on a rapid adoption curve due to Berners-Lee’s WWW, Bill Gates found himself in a similar position to IBM. The biggest home software company in the history of the world was not even thinking about browser technology until a group of student programmers at the University of Illinois showed what was possible with Mosaic and, later, Netscape Navigator, introducing arguably the most significant consumer software product of all time, before Microsoft had noticed what was happening. I guess this is a perennial.

With the people who occupy positions of power in state institutions and their media ancillaries demonstrating that they have given up on thinking for themselves, if change is going to come, we will have to look beyond the ideas of bygone eras and start to innovate again. The usual suspects don’t know what they’re doing.

4 thoughts on “The Arrogance Of Ignorance

  1. A nice comparison with the computer industry. Perhaps I am a little bit less surprised by the lack of knowledge of our politicians – most MPs are there because of their egos rather than their ability.

    I had to smile at the IBM story, I worked on mainframes in the mid eighties – it was quite common to sneer at PCs.

    Funny thing is most people don’t realise that cloud computing effectively does the same as a mainframe so maybe IBM were right – but thirty years out on their hunch.


  2. I don’t know why people are so surprised at this. It is the way humans react to ALL change.

    Kuhn is famous for his ‘paradigm change’ view of scientific advance. But really, he was writing about a far more fundamental aspect of human psychology, and simply applying it to science as an example.

    He points out that, in a ‘normal’ world, people all agree with the ground rules and work in their allocated positions – working on fisheries quotas or the development of a new circuit for a mainframe.

    Then change begins to happen. But the mainstream people do not embrace it – they fight against it, since it threatens their jobs and their world view. They ignore the possibility of Britain taking it’s fish quota away, or that mainframes will stop being sold. They produce convoluted arguments against these things happening.

    Eventually, the walls crumble, and the new paradigm becomes accepted. And then people go back to a ‘new normal’ world, and work in their little compartments. Until the next major change…

    Liked by 2 people

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