Schoolboy trainspotters at Newcastle station

Book reviews: trains and barricades

A comprehensive look back at Britain’s love affair with trains leads this month’s selection of new books.


A History of the Barricade

By Eric Hazan, translated by David Fernbach, £9.99, ISBN 9781784781255

As a proud owner of the 1840 edition of Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, I couldn’t resist consulting it before writing this review: “Barricade, Barricado - a fortification, an obstruction, a bar to prevent admittance.” This pre-French-Revolution definition (first published in 1755) is rather uncharacteristically peaceful; if we consult much later dictionaries, like, say, a 1990s Collins, we’ll learn that a barricade is “a barrier for defense erected hastily, as during street fighting etc” - a much more belligerent description.

Indeed, until I read Eric Hazan’s fascinating book, I too used to think that it was only during the French Revolution that the barricade stopped being a purely civilian object, designed primarily “to prevent admittance,” like a modern swing-beam-type barrier or a turnstile. I was wrong.

According to Hazan, the history of the barricade as a disruptive (predominantly urban) engineering structure stretches across many centuries. It is an indisputably French invention (initially designated by a mixed Franco-Spanish term ‘barricado’) and was first used militarily in the 1570s, in the battle between French royal troops and the Huguenots. In the 20th century, barricades were a defining feature of all major social and military clashes: in Petrograd (1917), Berlin (1919), Barcelona (1936), Madrid (1937), Paris (1944), and in Paris again in 1968. The most recent example is probably the barricades erected by the Occupy movements in some major cities of Europe and North America.

I do call a barricade an engineering structure while realising clearly that out of all existing engineering creations it is the most chaotic and higgledy-piggledy one. Anything that comes to hand goes as its construction material. It is only once in Hazan’s book that we come across a description of what a 16th-century French barricade was typically made of: “These barricades were made of upturned carts, cobblestones, pieces of furniture and above all barriques [barrels - from which ‘barricade’ originated], filled with earth to give them solidity.” He adds that “the network of these was so dense that soldiers were caught as if in a net, under fire from the barricades and neighbouring houses.”

I feel like quoting endlessly from this revealing compact book, which, on top of everything else, is beautifully written and no-less beautifully translated. It also includes a detailed index.

The idea of tracing centuries of tempestuous European history by looking just at one significant engineering object strikes me as brilliant. This little volume will find a prominent place in the ‘golden shelf’ of my favourite books of all time.

Vitali Vitaliev

Oxford University Press

The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Transform the Work of Human Experts

By Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, £18.99, ISBN 9780198713395

What goes around comes around, and the emergence of a flourishing YouTube genre of the instructional DIY video has seen a resurgence of interest in the idea of fixing things yourself rather than dropping them off at a repair shop or even just chucking them away.

Only last week, when I followed the steps as a man in Kansas with a headcam went through the process of replacing the carburettor diaphragm on a petrol lawnmower, it was a small but significant example of how technology is changing the dynamic between the public and specialists who may have spent a lifetime acquiring a reservoir of skills and knowledge.

The father-and-son co-authors of ‘The Future of the Professions’ probably wouldn’t regard my American mentor as a professional. Daniel Susskind is a lecturer in economics at Oxford University, his father Richard is an author and adviser to industry and governments who specialises in the impact of technology on the legal profession.

But even though their focus is on the fact that in the future, society will “neither need nor want” doctors, teachers, accountants, architects, the clergy, consultants, lawyers and many others, to work as they did in the 20th century, the idea is the same.

The increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence and automation - along with other disruptive technologies we probably don’t even know about yet - will fundamentally change the way that the practical expertise of specialists is made available to society.

This, they predict will challenge the ‘grand bargain’ which perpetuates the prestige of today’s white collar professionals by granting various monopolies to those who have the right letters after their name. In the same way that the future role of humans in manufacturing is threatened by robots that do the job quicker and more reliably, this isn’t just a question of pay. There’s the ethical question of whether society has responsibility to reserve some occupations for humans, even if there are machines capable of doing the job just as well, if not better.

The Susskinds have come up with half a dozen new models for producing and distributing expertise in society. It’s not the end of the world for lawyers, doctors and the like; what they’ll have to get used to, though, is working in collaboration with technology, taking advantage of their ability to think innovatively and the fact that there are some situations where people want to deal with a human.

Of course, E&T readers will have immediately spotted one notable omission from the list of doomed professions. In the Susskinds’ dystopian white-collar future the engineers are the ones calling the shots, and there’s little recognition in the book that they’ll be affected.

The subtitle of this book - ‘How technology will transform the work of human experts’ - is indicative of how much the experts behind developments in artificial intelligence, robotics and the like will be the instigators of a revolution in professionalism, but not the victims.

If the steady stream of letters to E&T bemoaning the low engineers’ status is any indication of how preoccupied IET members are with this issue, ‘The Future of the Professions’ will, for them, signal less an alarming wake-up call, and more a refreshing change.

Dominic Lenton

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