Is high-tech REALLY indistinguishable from magic?

A fellow blogger asked for help the other week. What was the specific source – by page reference – to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Third Law’?

It was first published in his book Profiles of the Future – which was variously issued from 1958. My edition is the revised version published by Pan Books of London in 1973. And on p. 39 of that edition, as a footnote, Clarke outlines the Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

It was a throw-away point in a footnote to a lengthy chapter discussing the way conservative twentieth century science usually fails to admit to progress.

Fair point in that context, but I couldn’t help thinking of Europe’s history of exploration around the globe, which was built around wowing locals with techno-trickery and then bashing them with it. Toledo steel was one of several ways in which Hernan Cortez and subsequent marauders knocked over South and Middle American kingdoms in the sixteenth century.

It was a disparity that became extreme as Europe’s technical base improved, leading – ultimately – to the appalling massacre in 1893 of spear-wielding Matabele warriors by a handful of Cecil Rhodes’ Maxim gunners.  ‘Whatever happens/we have got/ the Maxim Gun/ and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in wake of the battle.

The conceit of the age – echoed in Clarke’s Law – was that the indigenous peoples who saw European technology looked on it as magic. And it’s true to the extent that, if we lack any concept of the principle behind something, it may as well be magic. The notion of TV, for instance, was absolutely magical before the discovery of electromagnetic transmission; and even a top scientist from (let’s say) the late seventeenth century would have little chance of comprehending one, if they saw it. But I bet that if the principle was explained, they’d soon realise it wasn’t magic at all – just following a principle not yet known.

The same’s true, I think, of the way Europe’s technology was received across the world as it spread during their age of expansion. I think that sometimes the words of magic were used by indigenous peoples seeing the British demonstrate – usually – firearms. But that didn’t betray lack of understanding of the foreign technical concepts. The actual problem was they didn’t initially have the wording. The best evidence I have for this is in the collision between industrialising Britain and Maori in New Zealand, during the early nineteenth century.

Maori picked up British industrial products very quickly from the 1810s, including armaments. These were acculturated – drawn into Maori systems of tikanga (culture), in part by co-opting words already in use. The musket became the ‘pu’, for instance – a word for a blowpipe. But Maori very well understood the principles – certainly going out of their way to learn about armaments and warfare. Some rangatira (chiefs) even made the journey to London to learn more, among them Hongi Hika, who visited the arsenal at Woolwich in 1821 and learned of musket-age warfare and defences; and Te Rauparaha, who was taught about trench warfare in Sydney in 1830.

For ‘contact-age’ Maori, British industrial technology was not ‘magic’ at all – it was something to be investigated, understood and co-opted for use in New Zealand. And I suspect that’s how the same technology was also received by indigenous peoples elsewhere.

I don’t know whether Clarke thought of it that way; I suspect his targets, more particularly, were fuddy-duddies in his own establishment who wouldn’t accept that there might be new scientific principles.

Is there a technology you regard as potentially ‘magical’ to others?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Evolving a book into the e-revolution

There’s no doubt that the revolution sweeping the writing and book-selling world of late has hit just about every aspect of the business. My latest book, the New Zealand Wars: a brief history, was published last month by Libro International. Production took me on a journey that revealed much of the new world all writers – and publishers – now face.

Click to buy from Fishpond

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The project started life as a reprint of an earlier book I wrote for kids – Fighting Past Each Other. But it gained dimension. It turned out it wasn’t possible to get the original print files. That meant my publishers, Libro International, would have to get the book re-originated, and that in turn opened up opportunity to update the contemporary images and to re-develop the design.

The process underscored just how much times have changed in just a few years. The best physical format in today’s market differed from that of even eight years ago. And a wider age bracket was needed. That meant not just revising but completely re-writing and re-pitching the text – which I took the opportunity to update with additional research.

Interpretation board at Ruapekapeka pa, Bay of Islands.

Photo I took of the interpretation board at Ruapekapeka pa, Bay of Islands.

Then there was the title. Good titles have become more essential these days than ever. The old title was catchy but not self-explanatory. Whereas everybody’s heard of ‘The New Zealand Wars’. The subtititle was obvious, given the scale of the book which, at 15,000 words and 88 pages, was necessarily brief.

What emerged is reader-friendly for all ages from 11-12 upwards. It’s a brief introduction to the wars, a guide to reaching some of the better known battle-sites, and I think it’s an essential part of every household’s book collection. Not that I’m partisan, of course… :-)

By the time we’d finished, the book was renewed for the modern world in virtually every aspect. You get the picture; it’s the same shovel, but it’s got a new-design handle and different blade. Really, a new book.

Shovel, of course, is the apt comparison, because the key historical debate about these wars, over the past twenty or so years, has been about the meaning of all the digging that went on. The two largest of the New Zealand Wars were exactly contemporary with the US Civil War, and much the same technologies were deployed. More about that soon.

It was a great pleasure to work once again with Libro International – Peter Dowling and his fantastic team. The New Zealand Wars – a Brief History is available in New Zealand physical and online bookstores now. Kindle is coming soon. And there will be North American print distribution early in 2015.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

When tyre-kickers leaf through your books…

Last week I sauntered into the (last) bookstore in Wellington’s Lambton Quay, New Zealand’s Golden Mile of retail shopping. I soon found some of my books – quite a number of my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand, in fact, cover-out, which is the very best way to display such things.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). A display from earlier days.

Cheered, I went to leave, when someone standing nearby picked up a copy and began leafing through it. I loitered. He leafed, frowned, smiled, leafed again, smiled, looked quizzical, and leafed some more. Finally he put it back in the shelf. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Would you mind telling me what stopped you buying the book? I’m the author, you see.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I was just browsing.’

I guess you can lead the horse to water. If the guy had no intention of buying and was simply passing time, he wasn’t likely to be captured by the book even if it had ‘buy me, you bastard’ in fluorescent ink at the top of every page. In point of fact, I wrote the whole thing to be appealing (obviously) – but not to capture a reader with hook lines every paragraph. That would ruin the book. That’s why TV is so terrible at the moment, incidentally; the pacing is designed to capture people as they idly channel surf, meaning action/drama every eight seconds (literally). It really affects the structure.

I walked off, “No Sale” signs chinking up in my mind’s eye. Better luck with the next customer. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Getting away from the re-remythologising of history

I’ve always thought it curious that our view of New Zealand’s history has always been a process of ‘re-mythologising’ – of discrediting one set of myths and replacing them with another. It happens once a generation.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

When I was a kid, around 1970, my school taught that New Zealand had been settled by two races. Moriori were displaced by Maori, who had arrived in a great single canoe fleet, and who were in turn displaced by the British. This was the supposed ‘truth’ on which kids of my generation were brought up – despite the fact that the ‘two race’ settlement idea had been discredited by anthropologist Henry Devenish Skinner in 1923.

Moriori, in reality, are the people of the Chathams. It has always saddened me that the fantasy of a ‘two race’ settlement persists, to this day, in the disgraceful and ignorant pseudo-history peddled by those who would prefer that Celts had arrived in New Zealand first.

The other myth of the nineteenth century – the ‘great migration’ – persisted into the 1970s, though it was increasingly evident that no such adventure occurred. It was Jeff Simmonds, I think, who first proved the point.

Today we know the ‘great migration’ was another settler-era fantasy, created before the turn of the twentieth century by amateur ethnographer Stephenson Percy Smith, who concocted it by ‘rationalising’ Maori oral traditions into a form that suited the way pakeha of that day preferred to see their world. Settler-age thinkers such as William Colenso, who lived a generation or two before Smith, knew there had never been a great migration. But once popularised in the School Journal, it was all the rage.

The reality is that New Zealand was settled around 1280 AD by Polynesians from the Cook Islands. The first landing was likely on the Wairau bar. No humans had touched the place prior. Others arrived from the Marquesas islands. There were also return journeys. All this stopped during the fifteenth century on the back of the Little Ice Age, leaving New Zealand’s Polynesian colonists isolated. Maori emerged, indigenously in New Zealand, as a development of Polynesian settler culture. There is some evidence that there may, some time later, have been an arrival from Tahiti on the East Coast of the North Island – a point that could explain quite a bit. But it has yet to be proven.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my brief history of the New Zealand Wars.

The mythologies of ‘two race settlement’ and ‘great migration’ were products of their time – a demonstration of the way that history is re-filtered through contemporary lenses. Even Maori of the day joined the band-wagon; Te Rangi Hiroa, for example, leaped upon the ‘great migration’ concept whole-heartedly, portraying Maori as ‘Vikings of the sunrise’.

Are we more enlightened in the twenty-first century? Of course not. Since the 1980s, New Zealand’s history has been re-written yet again. The so-called ‘revisionists’ have successfully dislodged old settler ideas. But these post-Vietnam baby boomers have also re-shaped our past in the image of their own ideals, the ‘post-colonial’ view that reversed – but which has not transcended – the parameters of settler age thinking. And while some new understandings have emerged, out of it has also come some of the most startling fantasies yet peddled about our past – fantasies that have once again seized the imaginations of particular intellectual groups, and so filtered through to wider society, as if true.

I’ve covered the story in my new book The New Zealand Wars – a brief history. And more besides. It’s time to get clear of the relentless cycle of re-mythologisation. Step one on that path is to understand the process.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Fringe thinking fruit-loops or just misunderstood?

I am often bemused at the way some people seem to think. Particularly those who advocate what we might call ‘fringe’ theories.

I took this photo of the Moeraki boulders in 2007. They fact that they are not perfect spheres is evident.

Moeraki boulders, north of Dunedin. It’s been argued that they are weights used by Chinese sailors to raise sail. As I know the natural geological origin of them, that’s not a theory I believe myself, but hey…

These are often portrayed in pseudo-scientific terms; there is a hypothesis. Then comes the apparent basis for the hypothesis, frequently explicitly titled ‘the evidence’ or ‘the facts’. And finally, the fringe thinker tells us that this evidence therefore proves the proposal. QED.

All of which sounds suitably watertight, except that – every time – the connection between the hypothesis and the evidence offered to support it is non-existent by actual scientific measure. Or the evidence is presented without proper context.

Some years ago I was asked to review a book which hypothesised that a Chinese civilisation had existed in New Zealand before what they called ‘Maori’ arrived. (I think they mean ‘Polynesians’, but hey…)

This Chinese hypothesis stood against orthodox archaeology which discredited the notion of a ‘pre-Maori’ settlement as early as 1923, and has since shown that New Zealand was settled by Polynesians around 1280 AD. They were the first humans to ever walk this land. Their Polynesian settler culture, later, developed into a distinct form whose people called themselves Maori. In other words, the Maori never ‘arrived’ – they were indigenous to New Zealand.

This picture has been built from a multi-disciplinary approach; archaeology, linguistics, genetic analysis, and available oral record. Data from all these different forms of scholarship fits together. It is also consistent with the wider picture of how the South Pacific was settled, including the places the Polynesian settlers came from.

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop someone touring the South Island looking for ‘facts’ to ‘prove’ that a Chinese civilisation had been thriving here before they were (inevitably) conquered by arriving Maori. This ‘evidence’ was packed off to the Rafter Radiation Laboratory in Gracefield, Lower Hutt, for carbon dating. And sure enough, it was of suitable age. Proof, of course, that the hypothesis had been ‘scientifically’ proven. Aha! QED.

Except, of course, it wasn’t proof at all. Like any good journalist I rang the head of the lab and discovered that they’d been given some bagged samples of debris, which they were asked to test. They did, and provided the answer without comment. The problem was that the material had been provided without context. This meant the results were scientifically meaningless.

I’m contemplating writing a book myself on the pseudo-science phenomenon with its hilarious syllogisms and wonderful exploration of every logical fallacy so far discovered. How do these crazy ideas get such traction? Why do they seem to appeal more than the obvious science?

Would anybody be interested if I wrote something on this whole intriguing phenomenon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing prompt: suddenly it was 1938…

I’ve been playing with some of the photos I took during the Art Deco Weekend, Napier, a few months back.

Here’s one of them. It got me thinking of a story. You?

Anybody would think it was 1938...

Anybody would think it was 1938…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Lamenting the sadness of war, and of New Zealand’s war historians

Flags are at half mast today across New Zealand to mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War.

A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23121937

A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23121937

Over 100,000 young Kiwi men were drawn into that conflict over a four year span. Of these, more than 58,000 became casualties, 16,500 of them dead. For a country of just on a million souls it was a heart-wrenching tragedy.

New Zealand, of course, was far from alone.

That human cost was multiplied by the fact that survivors came back damaged; this was the war that introduced ‘shell shock’ – post traumatic stress disorder – to the world on the largest scale. During the 1920s, broken men tried to pick up the shattered threads of their lives as best they could. There was often little help. An experience wonderfully described in J L Carr’s A Month In The Country.

Today the overwhelming impression of the war – certainly the way that New Zealand historiography and popular recollection has been shaped – is of unrelenting tragedy. A senseless war of senseless slaughter in which stupid generals didn’t know what to do, other than send innocent men walking very slowly towards machine guns.

Call it the ‘Blackadder’ interpretation.

World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22304585

World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22304585

This has been the overwhelming tenor of the key interpretations of the war, shaping even academic history. From the military viewpoint it’s not true. Despite the appalling casualty lists and human cost, the tactical reality on the ground was a good deal more sophisticated than historians usually allow. And there is a good deal else that has yet to be discussed – lost, until now, amidst the overwhelming power of human sorrow. The war’s beginning has been portrayed, narrative-style, as a mechanistic result of nationalist pride and inflexible European alliance systems. In fact, there were choices; but the underlying motives for the decision to fight have barely been discussed by historians.  Could it be that, from the viewpoint of British and French politicians in 1914, it was necessary – even essential – to make a stand? A lot was said at the time about German ‘frightfulness’. Was this propaganda or a fair assessment? How far can the underlying trends and issues be validly traced?

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427

As yet, these debates have barely begun. They are being raised in Britain – I keep getting invited to contribute papers to symposia and conferences there, via the Royal Historical Society of which I am a Fellow.

Whether I can do anything about exploring the same ideas in New Zealand is moot. I write and publish on my own merits. Alas, New Zealand’s local public- and university-funded military historical crowd – all of whom prosper on full-time salaries at my expense as taxpayer – have rewarded my independent commercial work in their field by treating me like a war criminal. I know these strangers only through their public worth-denials of my scholarship and the commercial work I do to complement their taxpayer-funded activities. They do not respond to my correspondence, I cannot get added to mailing lists, and I have been unable to join their symposia even as audience – I only found out about the latest by accident. All from strangers who have felt unable to approach me directly in the first instance, but have been happy enough to go behind my back to attack me in public and then cowered behind silence when approached over their conduct. However, I’ve been told their status is such that I have no grounds to criticise them.

westernTo me the study of history – as with all human endeavour – is all about positively working together with good will, generous spirit and kindness. Grow the pie, and everybody benefits. But I appear to be a lone voice. And the experience makes me ask why I am paying the salaries, travel expenses and subsidising the publications of this little group through my taxes. There is a LOT of public money sloshing around the First World War centenary in New Zealand. Should it all be accumulated to a few public servants and academics who flourish at taxpayer expense and whose response to commercial authors seeking to work with them is to publicly attack and exclude the interloper?

Wright_Shattered Glory coverThe practical outcome is there seems little chance of my getting support for what I want to do. I’d like to look at New Zealand’s First World War from a different perspective – not to dislodge the ‘Blackadder’ view, but to add to it. There are many questions, including issues to do with New Zealand’s national identity – something I touched, briefly, in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin, 2010). But I can’t see myself being in a position to take that further.

But enough about the schreklichkeit of New Zealand’s military-historical academics. Instead, let’s take a moment to pause and think about the realities of the world a century ago – a world when, for a few brief weeks at least, the notion of a new war seemed somehow adventurous. It would, most of those who flocked to enlist were certain, be over by Christmas 1914.

Of course it wasn’t. As always, the enthusiastic young men, the hopeful patriots, the eager populations of 1914 did not know their future.

More on this soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014