One bright spring morning in the early 1630s, a wealthy Dutch merchant was delighted to receive a visit from a sailor bringing a tip-off that a very valuable cargo had just arrived at the docks. As a reward for the information, the merchant presented the sailor with a fine red herring. Whilst the merchant was distracted for a moment, the sailor saw, lying among the debris on the shop counter, what he thought was an onion. Thinking it would go nicely with his fish breakfast, the sailor surreptitiously slipped it into his pocket. That, however, was no onion — it was a Semper Augustus tulip bulb and this was the height of the “Dutch Tulip Craze”, which saw bulbs valued higher than gold and sold for extraordinary sums of money. That one bulb alone was worth three thousand florins (over $1,000)! As soon as he spotted it missing, the furious merchant launched a search of the docks. Finally the sailor was found, sitting happily on a coil of ropes, chewing the last mouthful of his herring and “onion”.
In a fascinating essay in Education Forum, the magazine of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, Stephen Anderson tells a chilling story of a philosophy class he was teaching on ethics. Wanting an “attention getter” to shock his students into thinking morally, he displayed a photo of Bibi Aisha. She was a young Afghani girl who, aged just 14, was forced into marriage with a Taliban fighter, who proceeded to horribly abuse her. After suffering four years of violence, Aisha fled but was soon captured. Her husband and other family members then hacked off her nose and ears and left her to die in the mountains where she was later rescued by aid workers.
As I write these words, a new gadget craze is once again sweeping the world: this time, it’s the Apple Watch. If you believe the hype (and the pre-orders suggest that millions do), the Apple Watch is set to be a wild success. The marketing promises us that it will change our lives, allowing us to communicate with loved ones in new ways, play yet-to-be-envisaged-games, and track our health and sleep patterns. Apparently it even tells the time. I say this not to mock, as I’m a sucker for new technology, especially Apple products. Back in 2007, I remember queuing for hours outside a mobile phone store in London for the privilege of being among the first to own an iPhone.
We love technology, we’re addicted to our gadgets, and the ubiquity of digital devices in our lives has been a major contributor to the popular idea in our culture that science is a panacea for all that ails us.