History

This website has sometimes been said to be over-critical and negative about the industry that is its subject. That isn't the intention, and I thought it might be useful to outline my personal philosophy on the nature of history, and of knowledge in general.

Our species is called homo sapiens. Central to our self-image is the idea that it is our inexorable pursuit of knowledge that sets us apart from the dumb beasts. And yet true knowledge is an elusive thing - so elusive, in fact, that our pursuit of it may be said to be always unrequited. Little, if anything, in our experience is genuinely knowable. Professions of knowledge are always questionable and often fraudulent. The pragmatist might ask - "without knowledge, how could we have sent people to the moon?" The correct response to this is that, to get to the moon, knowledge is not required.

Cursed by their inability to attain true knowledge, human beings create narratives to explain the world they live in, and invest these with the regalia of knowledge. Such narratives might be the Book of Genesis, the Phlogiston Theory, or an account of the sequence of reactions that takes place in the bowels of a cement kiln. The narrative remains inviolable as long as its predictions remain sufficiently well in accord with practical experience. Successful narratives are propagated at the expense of those that fail.

That narratives are inviolable is a political statement, and narratives, in collaborative human ventures, are sacrosanct - that is, contradictions and criticism of them are in practice discouraged and suppressed. Every human organisation has self-preservation - and preservation of its narrative - as its primary sine qua non function, to which all other functions are subordinate. Accounts of actual experience are selected and distorted in order to fit with the accepted model. The adoption of a new, more successful, narrative only takes place by disruption, in which the priestly proponents of the old are not converted to the new, but simply rendered irrelevant.

In surveying the historical sources, particularly on a technological subject, one finds that people got things wrong all the time. Their errors not only limited their own success, but also that of succeeding generations. They were not necessarily at fault for this - ignorance is after all the default human condition, and learning follows the arrow of time (although sometimes things are unlearned as well). The application of a now-superseded narrative was not qualitatively different from the application of the current narrative. However, the process of writing history here, now, always consists of interpreting the past in terms of the current narrative.

Nothing can be more pointless in a historical account than to present past errors uncritically. Bearing in mind the need to preserve the organisation's cultural memes, it's obvious that whenever the results of an innovative experiment are published, the experiment is claimed to be a success. A retrospect of decades allows a pragmatic assessment of the truth of the claim to be made.

As an example of this, there arose in the mid-1920s the practice of introducing slurry into the upper end of cement kilns by means of sprays. Every account of this pronounces it to have been a dazzling success. A large proportion of the dried feed was entrained in the exhaust gases, and because the kilns of the time had little in the way of dust filtration, dust was emitted over the neighbourhood in volcanic quantities. However, accounts of the time said that dust emission was not an issue, or even that slurry sprays improved the situation. Published accounts a few years later said that dust had been a problem initially, but this had now been fixed! At no time (of course) was there any suggestion that an installation was a failure. Using only the published accounts as sources of information, one might conclude that the process was so successful that it was installed everywhere and became standard practice. In fact all installations were removed within a very few years. Only by looking at newspaper accounts of the cacophony of dust complaints that took place at the time does one get any idea of an alternative point of view. Of course, the people at the "sharp end" of the industry who were required to implement this system were very well aware of its shortcomings, but had to soldier on. Those who dared put their heads above the parapet and point out that the "King's New Clothes" were not as claimed, were quickly "disappeared". To be on the team, you have to be a true believer.

I leave it to those still in the thick of it to say whether this style is still a feature of the industry.

The point that emerges is this: anyone versed in the current narrative would say without having to think for long that slurry sprays were a really stupid idea - probably emanating (as in fact was the case) from someone with little knowledge of the industry. A historical account should be capable of making this point.

I have said that this requires a retrospect of decades. It follows that current events can't be subject to the same critical approach. However, one can at least avoid adopting the current memes, and this I have tried to do. And if the King's still naked, I'd rather say nuffin than join in admiring his robes. It's difficult. But (as a colleague used to say ad literal nauseam) no-one said it would be easy.

NOTES

Note 1.