Is this the first Election to be decided by Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine?

The political contenders limber up before activating the Prolix machine

The political contenders limber up before activating the Prolix machine

How technology and radical new forms of communication are changing the way the General Election campaign is fought…

With less than a week to go before polling day, and the parties still neck and neck, only one thing can be said with certainty. This is the first electoral campaign where the battle has been fought, not at the hustings or at large rallies drawing vast crowds, but on the new communal steam-powered medium made possible by Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine. The practical applications of the invention seemed unclear until a few years ago, when one of Babbage’s youthful assistants devised “Prolix”, a communication system whereby people are able to send instantaneous written messages – dubbed “proles” – available to all and sundry. The genius of Prolix is that proles are limited to a minimum of 50,000 words, and must perforce include several quotations in Latin and Ancient Greek. These iron rules ensure that the quality of debate on Prolix remains high.

Both the main contenders, Ben Disraeli and William “Call Me Bill” Gladstone, have taken advantage of the innovation. Indeed, both men would appear to be concentrating their efforts on sending out proles rather than the more traditional means of communicating with the voters – who, thankfully, do not yet include the Great Unwashed, in spite of the stirrings and upheavals in some of our European neighbours.

The ability of literate Prolix users to respond to the outpourings of the politicians, however, has led to some unexpected consequences. Much has been made in the present campaign, for example, of Ben Disraeli’s dandyism and his rather showy hairstyle. More seriously, the “leakage” to the press of his obsequious missives to Her Majesty has demonstrated the dangers of the new communications medium for those who are not fully conversant with which knobs to depress on their machines.

For his own part, Bill Gladstone has become the object of some ridicule for his impassioned belief that an expeditionary force be sent to discover the location of Atlantis, and also his conviction, expressed in the course of one of his many interminable proles, that the paucity of words for colours in Homer proves that all Ancient Greeks were colour-blind.

Some Cassandras in the old-guard print newspapers have suggested that a focus on such trivial matters is to be laid at the door of Mr Babbage’s invention. We can only hope they are wrong, and that 150 years from now, the electorate will be more engaged, more educated, more literate, and sending ever lengthier written messages on Prolix, ever more replete with quotations in Latin and Ancient Greek. That seems by far the likelier prospect.

Babbage's Difference Engine No.2

Babbage’s Difference Engine No.2

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About Author Profile: Frank Key

Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

4 thoughts on “Is this the first Election to be decided by Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine?

  1. Brit
    May 1, 2015 at 12:49

    Very good, Mr Key.

    May 1, 2015 at 21:23

    Is your election still dragging on?

    May 2, 2015 at 15:53

    I think that Ben may have been the one who astonished Babbage by asking whether the Analytic Engine could produce the correct answers from incorrect inputs.

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