For the lack of a horseshoe the battle was lost (950)

For the lack of voice-recognition software in their mobile phones, the revolution was lost. In the last 17 days the middle-class students and intelligentsia of Tahrir Square in Cairo were unable to present specific proposals beyond “Mubarak must go”; Muburak and his army council were unable to present the specific steps by which some sort of acceptable reform could be carried out. We don’t yet know what the outcome will be—which side will ‘win’—but it’s almost certainly going to be a disaster either way.

It was words on paper (or on screen) that was missing. If Karl Popper were alive today (he died in 1994) he would have recognized this. Words on paper belong to what he called World 3. Ideas in the individual mind he called World 1. Ideas or predispositions that could be transferred horizontally by word of mouth or vertically between generations he called World 2—or, in shorthand, culture. It is only when knowledge can be succinctly described in words (or images, or mathematical symbols, or musical notation)—and rationally challenged if necessary—that effective change can be made at perceptible speed. This is World 3 knowledge.

It was by means of World 3 that the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king of circa 1700BC, could lay down the first laws of civilized conduct, or the Sanskrit writing of the Vedas in India at around 1200BC began cosmology as we know it today, or the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers of around 500BC that began science, or the writings of Confucius’s disciples at around the same period that laid down a political system that still exists today. And we can point to the Guttenberg press as the technology that finally woke us up from Medieval stupor.

Today, almost everything that is significant in economic change takes place initially on the backs of scientific papers that describe experiments in words of such extreme exactitude that their findings can be either accepted or challenged by other experiments and carefully written papers. It’s a ratchet-like procedure, more usually than not going forward in small steps.

This doesn’t yet happen in politics where, more often than not, elections are decided on the chest-beatings of politicians, their telegenic handsomeness and the bribes they offer to this class of the electorate or that. But, in this increasingly complex society, we are seeing the beginnings of World 3. Any young ambitious politician these days feels impelled to write a book laying out his viewsy. Political manifestos are getting longer from election to election. But what’s lacking so far is anything resembling discussion forums that are akin to scientific papers in which anybody who has a well-thought out view can take part and then be challenged in rational ways.

We’re very close to it already. The medium is now the Internet. And there is now a multitude of discussion forums on it already. Indeed, the Internet is already so successful that it is driving newspapers—as we know them today—to extinction. The problem is writing. It is a very arduous task and only a few with sufficient discipline and time (or career motivation) undertake it. And the act of typing doesn’t help much either.

Most importantly, the Internet can’t yet tap into the full range of political ideas, comments, reactions from people in all walks of life who can readily talk about the things that concern them but not write (that is, type) about. The nearest we get to this state of affairs are World 2 approximations—’Question Time’ programmes on radio or television in which members of the audience can let off steam to a panel of ‘experts’.

Voice-recognition software could solve all this. It is extremely complex however. It’s a dream ‘app’ that has been tried and increasingly perfected since the ’90s but it still nowhere near reaches the nuances of ideas that can be expressed so readily in speech but take time and effort to put down on paper. It is the app that mobile phone manufacturers yearn for but is still, probably, some years away until it is sufficiently versatile enough for all to use.

Once this happens, however, it will undoubtedly transform political (and economic) debate and also radicalize the structures of governance that flow from it. Groups of intellectuals could write their political papers, just as the scientists do about their subject but, given speech-recognition software, they will also be able to receive feedback from a far wider audience—that is, the majority of the population—to incorporate in their written papers.

In Tahrir Square there was only one set of political proposals (though not overtly expressed) and this was that of the Muslim Brotherhood—a proposal which the majority (and Mubarak!) distrust and fear. Yet there was intellectual firepower and sufficient time for at least three or four other well-discussed proposals to have been got together (and to receive the feedback from a far wider ‘worker’ audience which didn’t attend the demo) and written down had there been an adequate technology.

Of course, this would have been no use if Muburak had shut down the Internet service providers—as he did, of course. But had there been speech recognition software beforehand, then we could be sure that the young middle-class and intellectuals would have entered Tahrir Square with specific proposals already prepared.

As I write, the situation hangs in the balance. I hope I’m wrong but it looks as though disaster looms one way or another. Something has to be resolved very soon—certainly within a few days—or Egypt will collapse financially and totally. And if that happens, they’ll be lucky if they still have Mubarak and his army generals to impose order. History strongly suggests that an even more draconian dictator and an even nastier regime are more likely to take over.

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