Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Wondrous Social Engine

They assembled in a respectful hush before the monolith, draped in a shroud the dimensions of which defied the imagination. Up into the heavens the folds of concealing cloth towered, its loftiest heights disappearing into thin wisps of cloud. Clad in the armour of antiquity the steampunk shadow cabinet gathered to await the unveiling and Archibald P. McDonnell unstrapped his elastic-driven calculating engine to take the weight off his shoulders. It settled with a slight creak and sat there, smoking slightly, resembling an early accordion except one possessing of a bulbous screen and several antennae, there to harness the power of the ether.

“I hear” said a voice from the assembly, far too loud in the awed silence, then again, more measured, “I hear the machine will provide a universal service network, with high speed information delivery to even the remotest community.” The crowd murmured appreciative assent. “Better even than the miraculous telegraph?” asked another. “Better even, they say, than the telegraph, the delivery ponies and the carrier pigeon force combined.” A wag replied “And less shit all round!” A titter spread through the throng, as the anticipation built.

A new character joined them. The burly, leather corseted frame caused the crowd to part, dividing like parted waves as it strode, lumbered, to the front of the vast pedestal. With shiny gauntlet-clad hands it thrust its welding goggles to rest on a vast forehead crowned by a mighty helmet which, on closer inspection, turned out to be sculpted and black-lacquered hair. Sweat beads rolled down that mighty brow and pooled in a jowl crease as Diane Bathsheba Hortensia Abbott gradually wobbled to a halt, the ripples eventually subsiding and coming under the control of the network of scaffolding and corsetry that contained her bulk. “Open knowledge Libwawy!” She gasped for breath. “Platform Co-operwatives.”

A cheer went up, but more from fear than understanding. O brave new world, that has such people in ’t? More disturbance at the back heralded the arrival of increasingly outlandish figures garbed in costumes both exciting yet strangely antique. As each arrived, they intoned ever stranger incantations: Digital Citizen Passport! Programming for Everyone! A People’s Charter of Digital Liberty Rights! Each nebulous concept was greeted with awed gasps and small rounds of excited applause. But how was any of this possible?

Suddenly, on the dais, in front of the drapes the curious yet commanding figure of Jeremiah Isaiah Ishmael Leopold Corbyn IVth raised his hands and spoke through a large brass sounding horn “Massive Multi-person Online Deliberation!” he cried and with that he pulled a wooden lever to his side. Cogs creaked, a hiss of steam vented and ropes strained as acres of cloth fell away to reveal a fearsome machine, towering above them. “Behold, Deep Throat!” A cough, a whisper... ‘thought’. Jeremiah rephrased, “Behold, Deep Thought!”

“But what does it do?” cried the crowd. Corbyn flipped down a large brass monocle which was fitted to his stovepipe hat and declared, “Everything! It will solve the world’s problems and bring peace and equality to all!” The crowd were impressed. “But how does it work?” they asked. “It is powered by the collected hopes and dreams of humanity” said Corbyn. “This miracle of steam power and new-age cog-based engineering will deliver our digital democracy manifesto, bringing power to the people!”

Behold, the mighty Labour machine!

“But who will control the machine?” asked a small voice in the crowd. “The people will always be in charge,” said Corbyn, at which point a great rattling was heard and the whine of whirring wheels increased its pitch and volume. The machine rose off its haunches and a great maw opened up below gigantic eyes which glowed red. All the dials flashed, the mouth opened wide and a deafening roar, like the laughter of the devil himself, boomed out. The fearsome engine strode through the crowd, scattering bodies left and right, then gasped and puffed and clunked off into the distance.

“Bugger,” said Jeremiah, “back to the Edstone.”

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