What did I do before the Internet? The answer is simple, if I needed material I went to a library, or rang a friend in a newspaper library hoping against hope that she would know the answer, or at least how quickly to find it. But that all took a lot of time. Today I can find what I need quickly, and usually without disturbing others.
It’s a bit the same with how I write. I started longhand (my first novel was handwritten), and an early purchase was a portable typewriter. As new technology appeared I went with it, acquiring the lovely IBM electric, and then its superb replacement, the ‘golfball’. But in the early 1980s came the desk computer with an attached printer. The effect on my working life was astonishing. I was much more productive — and I learned new skills, as well. The typewriter became something for the museum.
Same with photography. I progressed from a Box Brownie to a Voigtlander, and then to a Canon with a big telescopic lens, and then to a Pentax and now to to a digital. I don’t take so many pictures these days, unless grandchildren are around, and I’m pressed into service again. I still have some fine old cameras, which are probably best seen as museum pieces.
These three stories have a common theme. The technologies I now use were simply unknown when I started, and could not sensibly have been predicted. They have greatly improved my productivity, and are cheaper. Not only that, each advance in technology and productivity forestalled a potential crisis. It was once feared that we would need to create extensive plantations to produce the trees needed to produce the paper that we would need to read the books and newspapers. It hasn’t happened, and newspapers and publishing are in a real pickle.
Kodak’s need for silver kept prices high, and it was feared at some point (I now forget when) it would become too expensive for us amateurs to do a lot of photography. The head of the French Navy petitioned King Louis XV in 1750 to rule that oak trees could not be cut down for any purpose other than to build ships for the navy.
And on the Internet I came across a priceless example of these fears, in a story about The Great Horse-Manure Crisis of the late 19th century, which you can read here. I did know about it, and I can remember interviewing a politician who had been at university in the late 19th century in Sydney — he remembered how smelly the horse-poo was in summer, as well as how much of it there was.
London in 1900 had 11,000 horse-drawn cabs, while the horse-drawn buses alone required 50,000 horses. Every other form of transport needed horses other than the new underground railway, then only a fraction of its present size. The problem of course was that all these horses produced huge amounts of manure. A horse will on average produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day. Consequently, the streets of nineteenth-century cities were covered by horse manure. This in turn attracted huge numbers of flies, and the dried and ground-up manure was blown everywhere. In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of.
The first international urban-planning conference convened in New York in 1898, and apparently ended after three of its scheduled ten days because none of the delegates could see what to do about horse-poo.
The problem did indeed seem intractable. The larger and richer that cities became, the more horses they needed to function. The more horses, the more manure. Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure. Moreover, all these horses had to be stabled, which used up ever-larger areas of increasingly valuable land. And as the number of horses grew, ever-more land had to be devoted to producing hay to feed them (rather than producing food for people), and this had to be brought into cities and distributed—by horse-drawn vehicles. It seemed that urban civilization was doomed.
But of course urban civilisation was not doomed. Electric trams and trains, and then petrol-driven cars and buses, removed horses and their by-product from city streets, to general satisfaction. What produced the technology? Incentive. As cities grew larger it became more and more important to find a speedy way of transporting people into and around the cities. Both electricity and petrol were available, and people were working on transport possibilities that would utilise them. The first London underground train, powered by steam, had been running for twenty years. In time these new technologies produced their own problems, and people today are working on better ways.
For reasons that escape me, there are some people who love to prophesy doom, which they warn is certain to visit us unless we mend our ways. The article I’ve been quoting from was written nearly ten years ago, before the Great AGW Scare became headline news. But what the author says applies neatly to it, too.
We commonly read or hear reports to the effect that “If trend X continues, the result will be disaster.” The subject can be almost anything, but the pattern of these stories is identical. These reports take a current trend and extrapolate it into the future as the basis for their gloomy prognostications. … These prophets of doom rely on one thing—that their audience will not check the record of such predictions. In fact, the history of prophecy is one of failure and oversight. Many predictions (usually of doom) have not come to pass, while other things have happened that nobody foresaw.
From now on I’ll be able to quote the Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894 to the next doomsayer I meet. ‘Ah,’ she or he will respond ‘this is different!’ You can’t win encounters with believers.