Questions, Questions, Questions
I will start this week with a few final thoughts from Tim Harford’s book ‘Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy’. As you may have noticed from last week’s offering, Harford quite often references China in his writing, with a very clear sense that the global picture is inexorably moving from the West to the East, whether in terms of population, resources or ambition – a development that does not look like stopping any time soon.
For the first ten years of my life, China was still suffering under the leadership of Mao Zedong, enduring poverty, famine and deprivation in the name of his communist vision. Table tennis and pandas seemed to be more important than trade, but perhaps this was the necessary starting point. The country’s transformation from such relative backwardness to become the largest economy on the planet only began after Deng Xiaoping outmanoeuvred his rivals to take over supreme power in China in 1978, two years after Mao’s death, which, staggeringly, is less than fifty years ago.
Much else has changed in a short time. A century ago, global average life expectancy at birth was just thirty-five; it recently rose above seventy. A baby born in the least propitious countries today such as Myanmar, Haiti or the Democratic Republic of Congo has a better chance of surviving infancy than any baby born in 1900. The proportion of the world’s population living in the most extreme poverty has fallen from about 95 per cent two centuries ago to about 60 per cent fifty years ago to about 10 per cent today.
Apparently, the world hit ‘peak paper’ in 2013, when global consumption finally started to decline. Many of us may still prefer the feel of a book or a physical newspaper to swiping a screen, but the cost of digital distribution is now so much lower that we go for the cheaper option. Finally, digital is doing to paper what paper did to parchment with the help of the Guttenberg press: outcompeting it, not on quality, but on price.
Paper may be on the decline, but it is hard to imagine it disappearing any more than the wheel is likely to disappear. It will survive not just on the supermarket shelf or beside the toilet, but in the office too. Old technologies have a habit of enduring. We still use pencils and candles. The world still produces more bicycles than cars. Paper was never just a home for the beautiful typesetting of a Guttenberg Bible; it was everyday stuff. And for jottings, lists and doodles, you still can’t beat the back of an envelope.
In one of his final points, Harford makes the point that man-made light was once a thing that was too precious to use, with cost of candles putting them beyond the reach of many. Now it is too cheap to notice. He concludes that if ever there was a reminder that progress is possible – that amid all the troubles and challenges of modern life, we have much to be grateful for – then this is it.
Last week’s list of ideas from the book, which I posed to get people thinking, was a reminder of something that was shared with me recently. It is the so-called ‘Election’ for Eton College from 1943, which was the entrance examination that boys had to sit from prep schools, which may or may not have come as a welcome distraction from the traumas of the Second World War.
A lot has been written over the years about ‘dumbing down’, the decline in academic standards. For many years, I kept copies of my O Level and A Level question papers, not with the specific intention of proving that my exams were harder than they are today, but there are times when I wish I still had them so that I could do a proper comparison. I imagine it is harder than ever to secure a place at Eton nowadays, so the idea that modern children have it easy does not seem to stand up, but I thought the questions were a fascinating insight into this narrow microcosm of what feels like a completely different world.
1. Compare and contrast the work and importance of any one of the following pairs: Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great; Julius Caesar and Augustus; Mohammed and St. Paul; Oliver Cromwell and Abraham Lincoln; Joan of Arc and Garibaldi; Lenin and Gandhi.
2. What do you think are the chief merits and demerits of the British Empire? Do you think its break up now would be for the benefit of mankind?
3. How far is it true to say that the future of Europe lies in the hands of the United States of America?
4. How far can the war be won by bombing German cities? Is this policy justifiable morally?
5. In which century of English history would you prefer to have lived (other than the 20th century?)
6. What part do you think geography ought to play in the study of history?
7. Do you think that the development of photography will kill the art of painting?
Do you think that modern jazz and swing music are entitled to the name of music?
If we now have our thinking caps on, this might be a good time to revisit some so-called ‘thunks’, from ‘The Book of Thunks’ by Ian Gilbert. Each one is just a simple question designed to get us to think more carefully about the world around us. If dumbing down is genuine, I really think the time has come to do the opposite, whatever that opposite may be, because ‘smartening up’ does not seem to work at all.
Does a cloud displace sky?
Is not going fishing a hobby?
Is a broken-down car parked?
Can you turn a sound upside down?
If the cure for cancer meant constructing a huge factory in Antarctica, should we do it anyway?
Would a baby born on a deserted island ever laugh?
If I borrow a million pounds, am I a millionaire?
Could a fish express a preference?
Can you say how many deaths it takes for them to become a statistic and not a tragedy?
Would you rather live under democracy or a dictatorship led by Father Christmas?
Will the planet weigh less when all the oil is used up?
Can you get lost if you don’t know where you’re going?
When you switch a light off, does the part of the room nearest the bulb go dark first?
Does the farmer own the pollen coming from his crops?
Can I say I’ve been to Amsterdam if I was asleep on a bus that drove through it?
And finally for now, can your mind hurt? It probably feels like it can just now, but I firmly believe the pain is worth the outcome of better thinking, if that is what we can achieve.