Welcome to the Nellie: Science and Superstition in the Modern Age

Whenever I think of the state of Western civilisation, here at the dawn of the 21st Century, I always see in my mind the fireman of the Nellie.

The Nellie is the name of the river boat that carries Joseph Conrad’s narrator down the Congo and into the “Heart of Darkness”. In the hot, dirty bowels of the boat, the fireman tends the steam engine, making sure that the pressure in the boiler never goes dangerously high. Yet, the fireman is a tribal African, with “filed teeth…and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks”, who knows virtually nothing about steam engines. He is completely ignorant of pressure, pounds per inch, boiler plate or any other contrivance of Nineteenth Century engineering.

For all that, though, he is diligent and effective. “He was useful because he had been instructed…that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance. So he sweated and fired up and watched the glass fearfully…”

Conrad’s image of the fireman of the Nellie is a compelling literary invention (although maybe not completely original: H. G. Wells had used an almost identical character in his Lord of the Dynamos, which was published a few years before “Heart of Darkness”), and a perfect metaphor for the Western mindset of the early 21st Century.

We live in an era of incredible technological achievement. When I have done writing this on my briefcase-sized computer, with a press of a virtual button on that computer, this essay will, within seconds, be available for anyone, anywhere on the planet to read, who also has a (probably even smaller) computer. Not only that, with similar ease they can respond to me personally.

If you don’t think this technology is incredible, imagine explaining it to an average person from even the 1970s.

Yet for all our technological achievement, we live in an era that some historians consider to be perhaps the most superstitious in human history. This may seem contradictory, but consider this: Right now, millions of your fellow Westerners are using the internet, perhaps the most astonishing machine humans have ever created, to assiduously absorb the message that “the Universe” will willingly grant their every desire for no other effort than simply wishing very, very hard.

We live our lives surrounded by gadgets of almost unimaginable technological achievement, yet we understand almost nothing of the fundamental nature of our toys, nor of the science that made them possible.

How many of you reading this can honestly say that you have more than the faintest idea of how, say, an iPod works? A GPS navigator? The internet?

By contrast, in the late 19th Century and at least up until the 1950s, it was not unusual for laymen to be at least familiar with the basics of new developments in science and technology. Public lectures at the Royal Institution in London were enormously popular. Magazines like Popular Mechanics were published from the beginning of the 20th century.

Of course, the scale and speed of modern technological development means that it is virtually impossible for a layman to understand it all in great depth. Still, there are many good, accessible books on science available. Even the children’s section of your local library will have many books of the “how cool stuff works” variety, which are often surprisingly informative. There are literally millions of similarly informative, free, online videos.

(Although I’ve forgotten just how an iPod does work. Something about the matrix of the Flash memory material storing binary data…)

Yet, so often we are sadly, willfully ignorant. Worse still, perhaps, many people actively decry science itself, even while hypocritically enjoying the fruits of technology. Activists from religious fundamentalists to environmental zealots and flat-earthers use the internet to spread the word that modern technology is evil incarnate.

As a society, we are living in a constant state of what a psychologist would call Cognitive Dissonance: “the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs”.

Like the fireman of the Nellie, we know just enough to be useful, yet we are still mired in a primitive, “demon-haunted world”.

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