It’s cold and semi desolate. The roof arches above us like a giant steel skeleton; an empty and soulless warehouse-like place. Except it isn’t empty, it’s a hive of activity, alive with an alarming, intangible buzz… This is not some sinister vision of the future, this is, um, Paddington and I am here to meet Peter Nowak, technology guru, journalist and author of Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology as we Know it.
I spent the last few days getting my teeth stuck into the book preparing for our meeting. Sex, Bombs and Burgers immediately struck me as being accessible and entertaining whilst maintaining a very informative and well researched voice. It is slightly subversive and authoritative without taking itself too seriously: it knows what it is and doesn’t try to disguise itself as anything else. What is it? In my opinion, an accomplished pop journalism book – a concise and clear concoction of Guns, Germs and Steel, Malcolm Gladwell and a healthy dose of Freakonomics for good measure. The theme of Peter Nowak’s book is that most of the major technological advances of the last 60 years stem from a trio of billion-dollar industries that cater to our basest impulses.
Sex, Bombs and Burgers is full of amusing anecdotes, looking particularly at the ‘shameful trinity’: porn, war and fast food. Stories include the invention of radar which not only helped swing the balance of WWII in favour of the allies, but would eventually develop into the first microwave, which would in turn mark the beginning of cooking convenience and change, to this day, the way millions of people live. The book goes on to argue that the pornography industry resulted directly from the war as the military used films for the purposes of recording enemy forces, training, propaganda et cetera as a result of which ‘film-making became decentralised and freed from the confines of studio lots’: more amateurs, less Hollywood. All of a sudden everyone had access to a camera, everyone was a director and there were no limits to what could be recorded (so obviously everyone started making sex videos!). Other stories include the invention of spam (loved in the Pacific Islands in case you didn’t know), the internet, the slinky, Playboy, DVDs and much more. As Peter says in his book, ‘from plastic bags and hairspray to vitamins and Google Earthy, military money has funded the development of most of the modern items we use today’.
The advantages of technology are clear to see. Without many of our consumer products that we take for granted it is hard to imagine what life would be like. The fast food industry inadvertently laid the foundations for vitamin research, food quality testing and, um, frozen chips (surely nobody could live without those!?). Everyone has a TV, laptop and DVDs. Imagine living without the internet – no chance!
Peter tells me to look at all the things around us. ‘Fewer people live in poverty. There are fewer people dying in war. The world today is better than it’s ever been.’ As he sips his coffee and I digest everything we have spoken about I ask him if there is anything he doesn’t like about technology, surely not all of it is good? Peter says he doesn’t understand or like the culture of anonymity that pervades the internet: too many people lack social manners. ‘It’s the Spiderman argument’ he continues, ‘the internet has given people great power but no responsibility. Why is it acceptable to say something to someone online if it wouldn’t be in real life?’
As I walk to my platform, I go over his last words which struck a chord with me, ‘great power but no responsibility’. Surely that’s the fundamental problem with technology (as it is with most things): the age-old truism that power (in this case technology) can be used for good if used correctly. There is no doubt that the invention of the nuclear bomb led to some devastating results, but likewise it is now being used to research cures for ailments like Alzheimer. This dual potential, this dichotomy of uses that applies to almost all modern technology means that it’s a question of whether the good will always outweigh the bad. This is not really what the book is about, but it’s the kind of debate it can start. As my train pulls away from the station, Sex, Bombs and Burgers is a comfortable source for the good that technology has accomplished, and catching a glimpse of the station’s ceiling it strikes me that perhaps the future isn’t as bleak as I always thought it would be.
Special thanks to the kind folks at Allen & Unwin for sending us a copy of Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology as we Know it and to Peter Nowak for writing a guest column and agreeing to meet way too early on a Monday morning.
Now go buy a copy and read it. Or give it to your friends. Or, if you’re too tight we might have a copy to give away next week… if yer lucky!!
Check Matthias Mueller’s excellent Cultural Constellations blog