You’ve guessed it, another analogy. Every December my literary agent, John Brockman of EDGE, sends out a question to many of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists. Somehow I have ended up being included on his list, though I am clearly small fry among some very big fishindeed. Anyway, this year’s question was: “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” My answer: I believe mobile phones are safe, based on an argument by historical analogy. They are, I reckon, merely the latest example of a familiar pattern: anecdotal evidence suggests that a technology might be harmful, and however many studies fail to find evidence of harm, there are always calls for more research. Selected answers to the EDGE question are the published in newspapers around the world; my answer was one of those selected by the Daily Telegraph, for example. By complete coincidence, a new British study was released the following week advising children not to use mobile phones. Actually, it wasn’t really a new study, just an analysis of previous studies into the effects of mobile phones, most of which are flawed or inconclusive. So why did the British experts come to a more cautious conclusion than other observers, when faced with the same evidence? The answer is simple: BSE. Ever since the mad-cow fiasco, the British government has taken an ultra-cautious attitude to public health; it has given up trying to explain that you can’t prove a negative. Anyway, until a study showing harm from mobile phones shows up, and is then replicated, I stand by my answer.
This month I had a piece in Technology Review drawing an analogy between Marconi’s early spark-gap radios and modern ultrawideband devices. Glenn Fleishman picked up on it on his blog, and coined a novel term for my habit of hyperlinking past and present: “Janus writing, in which the developments of the present are recontextualised in terms of their origins in the past.” Which seems appropriate, particularly since this month is named after Janus: it’s the month when we look both backwards and forwards in time.