Change Happens

Last night, I watched a 1951 British movie, The Man in the White Suit. The plot hinged on everyone’s realization that a new fabric invented by a young chemist (played by Alec Guiness) would put the British textile industry out of business. The fabric never wears out and resists dirt. Both labor and mill owners unite to suppress the discovery.

We know now, of course, that the great British woolen, cotton and silk mills did go the way of the buggy whip, prey not to new synthetic fabrics but to low cost overseas competition. At the time, it was unthinkable that the British mills would become all but extinct. When my great grandparents worked at Lister’s Mill in Bradford, it employed more than 10,000 people. My mother, who grew up “back of the mill,” recalls how the streets were so packed with people at closing time that there was no room for vehicles. By the time I remember visiting with my grandparents on Silk Street in the late 1960s, the mill was still active, but a shadow of its former self. Thirty years later, this monument of a once great industry was turned into shops and luxury apartments.

I think too of how my grandmother, with the prejudices of her time, was alarmed at how the “pakis” were taking over Bradford. How pleasing it was, then, to hear from my friend Imran Ali recently about the evolution of Bradford, a rebirth in which his family from Pakistan made the city their home:

My Grandfather came to the UK in the 50s, settling in Bradford before bringing his brothers and sons here to work and study…he was in the Indian/British Army during WW2, before finding work in various textile mills across the Bradford area.

Coming to Bradford moved us up from that background to our family’s first university graduates and now professional careers

So it’s a place I’m so fond of I can’t bring myself to leave. As much as I love coming to the Bay Area, Mt. San Bruno, Sonoma county, Burlingame and my other favoriite spots aren’t the same as driving over Ilkley Moor on a snowy winter’s day and seeing the Dales unfurl before me.

You might be interested to know a few interesting facts about the city since you may have last visited…

  • The University of Bradford was one of the first two to teach computer science in the UK (Manchester being the other) – though it’s disputed who was first!

  • The university’s school of computing gave the early UK web industry a great talent pool, including some of the founding team for Freeserve, the UK’s largest ISP during the first boom, and also its biggest exit.

  • Based on that we started a non-profit collective of new media companies called bmedi@ in 2001…

  • The National Media Museum is located in Bradford and they just added their photo collections to Flickr.

  • Grant Morrison wrote a graphic novel, Vimanarama, set in Bradford.

  • The city’s currently in the midst of a depression that goes back to the 2001 riots, but civic leaders have tabled an ambitious $3.2bn regeneration plan for the city’s built environment.

There’s actually a lot of interesting tech stuff going on regionally – a bunch of us have kickstarted grassrootsy-stuff like BarCamps, geek dinners and are starting to help a local university model itself on the Media Labs and ITPs of the world.

Meanwhile, Lister Park, a lovely park that I remember visiting with my grandmother, is now called The Mughal Gardens. Imran adds: “There’s a Pakistani cafe near there that serves kebabs made with a sauce that’s extracted from the Earth’s molten core – so spicy, you can briefly see through time itself ;)”

I won’t say that this entry has that much spice, but I hope you can take a moment with me to see through time to allow wonder and delight to replace fear of change.

We’re in the midst of enormous upheaval right now, between the Scylla and Charybdis of economic meltdown and climate change, with the promise of the Singularity visible in the distance like Apollo or Athena might have appeared to Odysseus’ frightened sailors.

This is not new. History is full of optimism and despair, discovery and upheaval, with distant hope inspiring us to the great efforts that alone can save us. And despite all our attempts to prognosticate, it has a way of surprising us. The makers of The Man in the White Suit were fascinated and frightened by the possibilities of industrial chemistry: it had all the magic that today we associate with great advances in computing or synthetic biology. And inventions of new materials did in fact change the world, though not in ways that the film’s creators lampooned.

Coming to terms with change is a basic life skill. If you don’t have it, it’s time to put it on your self-improvement to-do list. I’m reminded of something I wrote nearly 30 years ago in my first book, just out of college, a study of the work of science-fiction writer Frank Herbert:

One of [Herbert’s] central ideas is that human consciousness exists on–and by virtue of–a dangerous edge of crisis, and that the most essential human strength is the ability to dance on that edge. The more man confronts the dangers of the unknown, the more conscious he becomes. All of Herbert’s books portray and test the human ability to consciously adapt….

It is a general principle of ecology that an ecosystem is stable not because it is secure and protected, but because it contains such diversity that some of its many types of organisms are bound to survive despite drastic changes in the environment or other adverse conditions. Herbert adds, however, that the effort of civilization to create and maintain security for its individual members, “necessarily creates the conditions of crisis because it fails to deal with change.”

In short, get with the program! The future isn’t going to be like the past. What’s more, it isn’t going to be like any future we imagine. How wonderful that is, if only we are prepared to accept it.