20 July 2012 by Francis Goode
But right now, for the general population - the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus, who can only watch as dark-tinted limos whisk athletes past him along the ZIL lanes - the immediate response will be quite a different one. The Olympic games are dominating all our thoughts.
Our modern version of the games may share a common spirit with the original ones, but would have raised an eyebrow or two among the ancients. They would be most surprised to see that women compete and that modern athletes wear clothes (is there a connection?). And while people travelled from all over Greece to watch or participate in the original games, they were confined to Greeks. Now, of course, our global transport system (a true engineering wonder) gathers athletes and spectators from all corners of the globe; and even those who can't attend in person feel part of the spectacle, thanks to our telecommunications networks. And the drama of these great events is heightened further by our ability to measure lengths, heights and times with mind-boggingly fine precision using modern technology. Yes, we engineers may feel justly proud of our contributions to bringing this ancient tradition into the modern world.
But there's another ancient Greek ideal that's been revived in recent centuries and dominates our news agenda today. But as with the Olympics, our modern take on Democracy might be quite unrecognisable to the ancients. Again, women can now take part (although I'm not sure if there's been as dramatic a change in the dress code). And again, engineering has played a pivotal role in updating democracy for a more inclusive age. For over a century, technology has brought our decision makers ever closer to us: from delivering written words a day or so after they were uttered to hearig the spoken words in our own sitting rooms; from pictures on cinema screens to interactive images piped onto screens in our houses, bags and pockets. But mostly, these developments improved communications in one direction only: outwards, to us. While we received ever more intimate views of our elected representatives/leaders* (*delete as appropriate), we had few opportunities to respond and react. And this gave politicians more opportunities to control and massage the messages so delivered. Techniques originally developed to sell us products from soft drinks to insurance policies were honed to provide ever more sophisticated ways to control our opinions, and influence our voting behaviour. We were un danger of becaming consumers of democracy, not participants - a long way indeed from the ancient Greek idea of democracy. There it may not have been inclusive - only males of high social need apply - but it was participatory. Informed debates led to agreements by mutual consent or, at least, majority view.
But recent years - thanks, once again, to well engineered technology - have seen at least a partial reversal of the drift away from this ideal. The internet, mobile networks and all the social media they support, encourage us all to speak and write where once we were constrained to read and listen. Politicians and their friends no longer control communications. Arab Springers, the Indignants in Europe and Occupiers in America and have all used the new media to organise, mobilise and protest - with some stunning political results.
While we may not approve of all the ways our technology is being used, perhaps we what can agree is that, by putting this communication technology into the hands and pockets of ordinary people all around the world, we are helping to nudge our democratic processes back a little towards their original ideals. And that's a Greek revival we should celebrate more than once every four years.
Posted By: Francis Goode @ 20 July 2012 04:27 PM General
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