Leading Article: The Queen is making a stand against her times

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So the Queen is not at ease with the idea of a nation "with its finger on the fast-forward button", in her Prime Minister's ghastly phrase. "I sometimes sense that the world is changing almost too fast for its inhabitants, at least for us older ones," she told the Pakistani parliament. It was meant as an aside, the closest one gets to a Royal Joke, and a self-deprecating one too. But it offered an elegiac insight into the conservative character of our monarch.

Hers is a popular sentiment - that the pace of technological change is growing ever faster. That there is no hope for us wrinklies when three-year-old Angelica can already programme the video and surf the Net.

But it was ever thus. Seventy-one-year-olds doubtless shook their heads when the pharaoh's engineer explained how to move five-ton blocks of stone up a pyramid. What's wrong with a simple cremation? they probably asked. They tut-tutted when the first motor cars spluttered onto the roads. Dangerous, noisy, impossible to drive. They regarded the telephone as a jangling invasion of privacy, and preferred speaking to an operator instead of using anything quite as complicated as a dial. Indeed, the Queen's grandmother Queen Mary, who died in 1953, refused to use one at all. Technophobia seems to run in the family. This was also the week when the Princess Royal issued a sombre warning against confusing computers with education. Part of the fun in the news that the royal family had set up its own web site on the Internet was its incongruity, set against the image of an old woman who still wears headscarves and for whom a keyboard probably means a piano.

But it is a mistake to think that, simply because someone is old enough for a free bus pass, they cannot operate a microwave or must feel disoriented by scientific progress. Some old people are enthused by change, while some young people cannot cope or stick wilfully to a mannered fogeyism. This is not a matter of years, but of an attitude of mind.

What the Queen was really saying yesterday is that she does not belong to the flexible side of the human race. She did not suddenly start to disapprove of change when she became a grandmother; unsurprisingly, she was ever thus.

But the important point is that she is on the wrong side of the divide. It is part of the urban mythology of modern life that technology advances by geometric progression, with ever shorter times between scientific breakthroughs with ever greater power to change our lives. It is central to visions of ecological catastrophe, a kind of modern-day green millennialism, that technology is spinning out of control.

Again, it was ever thus. There is a tendency in human nature to see scientific advance as a threat to civilisation as we know it. But there is a stronger tendency to find things out, try things out, and push at the limits of what can be done. We have no choice, of course, but it is right that the questing spirit should prevail.

At the simplest level, "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" is a misunderstanding. Much of the new technology is designed specifically to enable people to cope with change. If people cannot use mobile phones and computers, they will not sell. Nowadays, electronic gadgets come with thick instruction booklets which most people throw away because they are so easy to use.

But there is a more profound point. There is no doubt that the pace of change in our understanding of the physics of the universe, the technology of information and the science of life is accelerating. This should be liberating and exhilarating. But, as scientists break boundaries in their explorations of higher maths, mind-bending physics and genetics, they have streaked away into areas where most people cannot follow.

Perhaps there always was a knowledge elite, from the scribes of Ancient Egypt to the professors of genetic manipulation, capable of terrifying the rest of us with the fear of that which we can only dimly grasp. But now scientific breakthroughs are translated into the way we do business at astonishing speed, and there are new dangers in the disconnection between the knowledge elite and society generally.

This has been demonstrated by the public alarm over the cloning of sheep and the possible cloning of people. This newspaper has argued that these fears are misplaced, but scientists do need to develop their understanding of the ethical and social contexts in which they work.

The route to democratic understanding, however, lies mainly in a wider realisation that trying to find the answer to the next problem, or how to make use of the answer to the last one, is the only way to control technology. It is not a message we would expect the Queen to like, but standing still is never the right thing to do.

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