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

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Creche Assistant or Nursery Nurse

£8 per hour: Randstad Education Leeds: The Job Creche Assistant to start asap ...

Nursery Nurse Level 3

£8 per hour: Randstad Education Leeds: The Job Nursery Nurse Leeds We are now ...

Web Developer/UI Developer (HTML5, CSS3,Jquery) London

£55000 - £65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A Global Financial Service Organi...

Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ashya King's father explained why he took his son to Spain in a video uploaded to YouTube  

Ashya King: Breakdown in relations leads to this PR fiasco

Paul Peachey
Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development holds a carton of eggs during a speech to Better Together supporters  

When the course of history is on the line, democracy is a raw, vicious and filthy business

Matthew Norman
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering