As you probably know, the Difference Engine is a proto-computer designed by Charles Babbage to do something called polynomial calculations (polynomial being the sort of word you hear bandied about and just nod as though you understand, after which it’s too late to ask.) But the Indifference Engine is something else entirely, and has to do with public debate.
The point of debate used to be to enlarge on topics, to test out arguments against counter-arguments and maybe arrive at some sort of conclusion, and along the way to learn something and even to change people’s minds. But nowadays public debate is becoming more and more gladiatorial: a contest where the only interest is in the outcome. Who won? Who lost? Who was ‘shut down’? Whose arguments ‘killed’? We cheer for one side and boo the other and rejoice or fume at the end, depending on the outcome. It’s basically a boxing match.
As far as the actual arguments go, they are not tools for debate or food for thought but weapons – and the upshot of all this, for many, is indifference to whole swathes of reality. Forget your nuanced arguments – sock it to us with a slogan. You can keep your if’s and but’s – what we want is a knockout punch. Nobody cares about the grey areas. If a politician is accused of sexual assault he’s probably guilty (or probably innocent, depending on which side you’re on.) There’s no examination of the evidence; no ‘wait and see’ – we want a judgment and we want it now.
Tragically this may have led to someone taking his own life. Yesterday Carl Sergeant, a Welsh Labour MP who had been accused of sexual assault by three women, committed suicide. We don’t know – and may never know – whether he did so because he was guilty or because he couldn’t cope with the burden of accusation. Nothing can be inferred from his death – though you can bet your life that the media (social and otherwise) are inferring it left, right and centre as we speak.
Whereas it seems to me highly likely that Harvey Weinstein was a predatory creep, since so many women have come out and told similar stories about him, it does not follow that every man accused of such crimes is guilty. There needs to be a process. Evidence needs to be gathered and assessed. And not by us, that’s the point. We don’t know who’s guilty and who isn’t – and we don’t like not knowing. We must have a judgment and we want it now.
This indifference to evidence, fact and nuanced argument greatly depresses me. I think I need to play around a bit on my difference engine…