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Archive for July, 2012

Boxing Clever: Heinz Wolff and the Storage Theory of Civilisation

By Jon Agar, on 5 July 2012

I recently appeared on Resonance FM’s programme The Thread, taking about the history of electrical storage. It was a fun conversation with others including modern literature prof Steven Connor, historian of medicine (and gin) Richard Barnett and Imperial College energy policy expert Philipp Gruenewald. You can hear the programme here.

One story I told was of one my favourite theories of society and civilisation: Heinz Wolff’s argument ‘Society, storage and stability’. It’s rather obscure. In fact, according to google scholar, Wolff’s paper, which appeared in a book called Science and Social Responsibility, edited by Maurice Goldsmith and published in 1975 by the Science Policy Foundation, has never need cited. It would fail the research councils’ “Impact” test spectacularly. But it’s well worth retelling.

Before we start, let us get our Heinz Wolffs straight. It’s confession time! In the programme I got them the wrong way around, and it has taken a little research to sort things out.

In the 1970s there were two of them.

First there is Heinz Wolff, a psychotherapist at the Maudsley, an enormous psychiatric hospital in Denmark Hill. He also taught at University College Hospital. His biography is interesting. (The sources are an obituary here and a pair of interviews with Sidney Bloch that appeared in The Psychiatrist here and here.)

Then, on the other side of London, there is the second Heinz Wolff, the bioengineer, now at Brunel, and later famous for his thick accent and avuncular appearances on TV, especially as the presenter and impresario on the Great Egg Race, in which enthusiastic engineers built Heath Robinson contraptions to transport eggs. That was what science programming used to be like.

The 1975 paper on society, storage and stability is by the egg man not the head doctor. Confusingly, Heinz Wolff the bioengineer was also working in the medical sector. He was funded by the Medical Research Council at the Clinical Research Centre in Harrow, designing monitoring equipment for hospital patients.

At first glance the storage paper looks disconnected from his bioengineering career. However, its ideas and origin make sense in terms of its context. I have argued elsewhere – including here and here – that the ‘long 1960s’ (from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s) were a period of transition for science in society. In particular, the period was marked by a distinct turning inwards: a new critical awareness of the place and roles of science, expertise and authority more generally. The sociology of scientific knowledge, the critical science of science, is one phenomenon of this turn. Another is the radical science movement marked by the activity of groups such as Science for the People.

But another was a more Establishment response that entailed worrying about some of the same issues that fired up the radicals but coming to different conclusions. Maurice Goldsmith’s Science Policy Foundation was one of these responses. It was based in Benjamin Franklin House, near the City. Honorary fellows included Julian Huxley and Lewis Mumford. It was advised by some of the great and the good, including Peter Medawar, Hermann Bondi, Asa Briggs, John Kendrew, Derek de Solla Price, Lord Snow and Alvin Weinberg. Hot postwar specialties (molecular biology, cosmology), meet critical Big Science (Price, Weinberg) and the Two Cultures (Snow).

1973 was a year of strikes, IRA bombs in London and the Cod War. In October 1973, Maurice Goldsmith gathered friends and sympathisers, along with an eclectic bunch of others, including the ex-minister of technology Tony Benn, now in opposition, to discuss science and ‘social responsibility’.

Heinz Wolff spoke, I think, towards the end of the conference. What worried him the vulnerability of complex societies to the disruption caused by an ‘undesirable’ minority. Just as in his body ‘a very large proportion of my internal housekeeping is reduced to immunology … merely to cope with the invasion of what appears to be quite trivial numbers and masses of interfering organisms’, so the ‘more complex society becomes the more vulnerable it becomes to interference by a small number of its members’. Despite the immunological metaphor of invasion, it is clear that what Wolff is referring to here is strikers, the people who can withdraw their labour and derange the system. So, for example, he wonders out loud:

We could try to control he aberrant minority by having very draconian methods of law enforcement. We could, for instance, forbid people in certain sensitive positions to strike, and if they showed any signs of doing so we could threaten to shoot them, or just shoot them. But this, in the kind of society in which we are living, is not permissible. We must, therefore, look for different methods of ordering out society.

At this point, Wolff invites us to think outside the box, or, rather, to have more boxes:

The society I would like to see is one which involves the concept of storage, because storage and stability are almost the same thing. In the same way as a large capacitor is used in the power supply, as a storage device to smooth out variations and give stability to the circuit, so storage in the society sense us also a smoothing capacitor.

Implementing this idea would mean a wholesale change in how we think about and design our technological infrastructure. Technological systems needed to be redesigned so that storage was widely expanded and widely distributed. There was distinct Small is Beautiful aspect to Wolff’s proposals here. The idea is that if all ‘small communities’ were able to store things better, whether those things were energy, water, food, and so on, then collectively society would be more robust. He gives one example (which has recent resonances):

Some years ago in London we had a strike of 700 drivers of the tankers which deliver petrol to local garages, and London more or less ground to a halt. We had a city of 12 million people apparently at the mercy of the activities of 700 people.

So far, so reactionary.

What’s interesting about the argument is that Wolff goes further, extending the argument in to one encompassing all of human history. It becomes a Storage Theory of Civilisation. The important first steps in social and cultural development were not learning to hunt on the plains of Africa, but what happened next. What to do with all that rapidly rotting meat. In Wolff’s words:

When primitive man first roamed the earth he had no security, as such, because he had to find the food which he wanted to eat every day by hunting for it, and in consequence he developed no civilisation as such. He had no art and no culture. He then learned to store things. He was able, therefore, to decouple himself from the variability of nature, and he decoupled himself not only from the variability of food supply but also the variability of the weather. When he got cold, he stored heat in some way, either by lighting a fire or by wearing clothes or living in caves. So he increased the time constant over which he was able to operate independently from the inputs which nature provided for him.

Civilisation progressed as the means of storage became more sophisticated. The Golden Age was perhaps in the 16th century when a big household, purchasing its supplies from an annual fair, could store nearly all the resources necessary to live well and to live independently. But in recent times dependence on others for quick supply – a dependence that was chosen by foregoing the means of storage – had meant that society was increasingly unstable. The vulnerabilities revealed by the petrol strike ‘could not have happened in the 16th, 17th or 18th-centuries because people did not have this degree of continuous interdependence on each other’.

Wolff advocated a return to the ‘technological village, but a technological village with a very high storage capacity’. Build houses with big tanks for water and fuel. Pool the small town’s sewage and use the biofuel to run the ‘domestic bus services’. There was also room for ‘community greenhouses’, factories that hoarded spare parts, and even ‘sealed nuclear reactors’ just in case. Encourage ‘do-it-yourself’ and self-sufficiency. (An aside, the self-sufficiency sitcom The Good Life, was being commissioned as Wolff spoke.) But, most importantly, increase and distribute ‘storage’.

Conserve and survive.