Sunday, May 8, 2011

That which is not recorded is soon lost ...

That which is not recorded is soon lost, in many cases as if it had never been. That which is not recorded, is not. Memory is fallible. We choose to share only a small part of that which is in our hearts and minds with others, so our memories - those which survive - die with us.

The ancients, many believe, had prodigious memories. Without them they would not have evolved complex languages, mathematical systems and created the first civilizations, not to mention religious lore and creation stories. While writing may have developed concurrently with the first civilizations, its art was the preserve of a privileged few such as, in Egypt, the priesthood.

Our first and most important skill as homo sapiens, sapientior was the ability to listen to others, to process that information rationally and imaginatively, to learn from others in this way, to retain what was learned and, in turn, to share it with others.

To me the importance of writing, and I am not unique in this perception, is that in addition to being an aide memoire and a means of communicating over distance by a more secure method than word of mouth, it is that of the world's first complex data storage medium. That there were other means of leaving messages for posterity, such as the earliest forms of art, I have no doubt. Writing, however, enabled a mass of detail to be recorded permanently in a relatively small space using a medium which could be preserved, with care, for many years. In this way human beings were able to deal with the growth of knowledge beyond the point at which, as it were, the known world could be encompassed by the mind of a single individual.

The historical record appears to show that cultures which were both without writing, and geographically isolated, changed little over the centuries. In some cases such peoples survived into the 20th Century living much as they might have in paeleolithic, or Stone Age, times. Literacy is not, however, a prerequisite for cultural evolution since peoples sharing the same landmass have shown the propensity to learn rapidly from one another. It is a moot point whether writing developed in Mesopotamia and spread east and west from there, or whether the ancient Chinese or one of the Himalayan cultures pipped the Sumerians at the post.

As all who have sat through school history lessons will know, writing remained an art practised only by the privileged until the invention of the printing press made literature more accessible. It is likely that more people learned to read than to write as well, although modern education tends to develop these skills in tandem.

What followed was a very gradual 'trickling down' of literacy with compulsory education for working folk not introduced in most European nations until the 1880s. In the UK there was considerable resistance to compulsory schooling from the working class, engendering attitudes and values which, regrettably, remain with us now and contribute to the relatively poor performance of anglophone nations compared to the Asian 'economic tigers' where education is revered and teachers receive the respect they deserve.

Nothing new in any of this, of course, but it helps to remind ourselves that the world we take for granted is relatively young. Mass education as a public good grew out of the industrial revolution. Land owners and capitalists needed secretaries, clerks and bookkkeepers in unprecedented numbers. Traditional grammar and elite public schools could not meet the demand for literate, well-informed individuals. Universities were inspired to move beyond the classical curriculum to meet the needs of a burgeoning civil service. A significant number of working class people began to see education as a public good in its own right, and as a means of achieving social and economic emancipation. As factory machinery, and machinery generally, became more common and more complex, its operation could no longer be trusted to illiterate former labourers.

The information economy then begins visibly to emerge about a century after the start of the Industrial Revolution in England. It was enhanced by the steam engine, the railway and the steam ship, accelerated by the electric telegraph in the 1840s and joined by the telephone, the typewriter and compulsory education in the 1880s. In all this we should not forget the camera which came into its own during the American Civil War in the 1860s.

Although there were tremendous improvements in all the aforementioned technologies, with the addition of the electric light and the internal combustion engine towards the end of the 19th Century, this was essentially the same world into which my grandparents were born around the turn of the century, our century.

By the time I was growing up in the 1950s many nations had yet to begin television broadcasting and most homes, my own included, had but one radio receiver, an elegant affair in a wooden cabinet in a corner of the living room. Other than the radio, home entertainment might include a mechanical gramophone with a stack of noisy, fragile 78s and/or a piano for those who were musically inclined. Most entertainment was still enjoyed outside the home, the cinema and - later - the drive-in cinema being major attractions. Our information was found in libraries, few having the budget for vast personal collections, magazines, and the daily newspaper which was delivered to many homes. The habit of listening to radio news broadcasts developed during the Second World War, but many countries - my native South Africa included - had only one state broadcasting corporation modelled on the BBC. We did, however, enjoy the magic of short wave radio, the BBC World Service and the Voice of America. Many homes sported some sort of external aerial in the form of a long wire with egg shaped ceramic insulators at each end, a beacon to fellow short wave listeners.

The status quo of the 1950s remained in place well into the 1970s, although there were significant improvements in technology as the transistor, invented in 1948, went into mass production about 1960. Radio receivers became smaller and more powerful and totally portable. The cassette tape recorder appeared around 1965 and record players were replaced by affordable home 'stereo' systems. These changes, however, can be seen as largely incremental and, for most people, computers were mysterious machines glimpsed whirring in the background of James Bond movies.

The real watershed in communication and information technology has to be the rapid evolution of the personal, or home, computer after 1980. Let it be said, however, that these early machines - however fascinating - were time consuming and frustrating beasts with very limited abilities. For many they were little more than toys although the word processor and the electronic spreadsheet were starting to transform our offices. The value of those early machines was to prepare us for the real magic, the ubiquitous internet, the miracle of instantaneous worldwide communication, seemingly limitless sources of information, and the compulsion of social networking with people one has never met and is never likely to encounter outside the ‘virtual’ world.

But how has this changed the way we do things, and have all of these changes been for the better? Are we smarter and better informed, or are we just extensions of the machines on which we have become increasingly reliant? Are there things at which humans are intrinsically better, and better equipped, than any machine? These are open questions which remain open ... just for now.

Friday, May 6, 2011

On the manner of their passing ...

Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
- Matthew 26:52

I was about to ask "What is it about the Australian psyche?", but its not about us, or them - whoever they may be. Its about people, about individuals in situations and the sub-cultures in which they are contained; about upbringing, education, friends, colleagues and the work environment.

You see, some of us think nothing of the police fatally shooting a man brandishing a knife, apparently incapable of overpowering and disarming him, all their training notwithstanding. Others among us, however, inveterate Uncle Sam bashers I have little doubt, call the shooting of Bin Laden an 'assassination', an extra-judicial killing - and this in complete ignorance of what happened when he and a group of armed men not working for Al Qaeda came face to face for the first time since September 2001.

Whether or not we shall ever learn exactly how Bin Laden met his death is a matter of speculation. A man with his history, in his situation, is likely to have been armed and to have resisted apprehension. Whether or not he would have been worth more to his captors alive than dead is a moot point.

Al Qaeda, reputably, does not operate hierarchically or under centralized control. By this time Bin Laden may have enjoyed no more executive insight, or oversight, than a constitutional sovereign, a titular head of state, to be kept in the loop after the event. This, however, flies in the face of reports that his home yielded an intelligence bonanza, a rich supply of data mostly in electronic form. This information must have travelled in and out by courier, since other reports stated that the dwelling was suspect because it was the only one of its type in the neighbourhood without telephone or internet connections.

In my view, uninformed as I am, Bin Laden alive is worth more to his captors than Bin Laden dead. What better place for him, ultimately, than the International Court at the Hague? That his captors would place themselves and their nation at considerable risk of reprisals I have no doubt. Bin Laden alive would have remained a beacon to his followers, but will this be any less so now that he is dead? In the place of the American President I should have wanted to speak with Bin Laden. Not only would this have been the statesmanlike thing to do, but it might actually have been instructive to learn something of the motivations of men who appear to believe that the world, and their respective societies, should revert to some mythical bygone era of domination by sword wielding, God fearing, priest ridden, warrior nomads, forgetting that the great Islamic civilization of the later Mediaeval period grew out of the subjugation of the desert nomads and resulted in centuries of rule by a people who, although Islamic, are essentially European rather than Arab.

Like so many with blood on their hands throughout the ages, Bin Laden occupied a fantasy world in which history, religion, culture and politics are surreal, distorted almost beyond rational comprehension, putting him in the same class - although fortunately far less effective - as men like Hitler and Stalin. Now that he is dead, shall we ever know what went on in that mind?

So, there will be those who say that he should not have been killed, without at this time knowing whether his attackers had a choice and those who believe that he was the victim of a deliberate 'kill' order. In stark contrast are the cases of the many Australians who have been shot down by armed police, often armed with nothing more deadly than a knife which - as any trained soldier will tell you - is worse than useless in the hands of someone not schooled in its use as an offensive weapon.

During a brief period of national service in the defence force of another country, I was taught the principle - to be applied while guarding sensitive installations - of minimum force, and equal force. Our weapons were to be kept unloaded at all times and the magazine supplied, containing only five rounds, was sealed with tape pending authorization from a superior officer. On no account were we to fire unless fired upon. People who approached us wielding knives, clubs, spears or any offensive weapon other than a firearm were to be disabled and disarmed in hand-to-hand encounters in which, as non-professionals eagerly awaiting discharge into civilian life, we had some rudimentary training. As a consequence, even after many years, I feel quite confident of being able to handle myself in most situations, against fellow amateurs, armed with nothing more than a straw broom.

Australia has a much smaller population than the United Kingdom and less crime per capita. British police, for the most part, manage admirably armed with nothing more than telescopic batons, in the use of which they are remarkably proficient. Confrontation with individuals bearing fire arms is the province of specially trained and equipped armed response teams. Fire fights are avoided at all costs. Why are we not prepared to invest in the recruitment and training of our police and to create forces enjoying the same degree of community affection and respect as the Met?

And so the death of yet another deranged, knife wielding individual at the hands of the Victorian Police goes almost without notice, lost in the noise surrounding the endless media coverage of the little we know about the Bin Laden shooting. By, perhaps unavoidably, killing Bin Laden we may have lost - for now at any rate - the opportunity to learn more about a mysterious individual, those who assisted him, and the manner in which they evaded capture for almost a decade.

For those who seek to use Bin Laden's death as an opportunity to castigate 'dastardly' Uncle Sam I have nothing but contempt. You are small people, with minds to match, lacking both compassion and humanity while grinding your puny axes. For our police who feel that their last resort when dealing with the mentally ill is deadly force, I have sympathy. You have been short changed by your recruiting, training, command and control structures. The time for us to stand back and take a long, hard look at ourselves is well overdue.

During the Bronze Age, weapons were scarce and expensive and conflict as much symbolic and ceremonial as actual. Iron, it has been suggested, changed all that by enabling the cheap, mass production of deadly weapons and the creation of huge armies. Since then, it seems, we have been unable to settle our differences without bloodshed, our own and that of others. War has long since ceased to be the province exclusively of a warrior caste, but has involved societies and nations in mass destruction and the killing of innocents on a genocidal scale. Bin Laden was a man from the past projected into the present, his followers without hope of a future.

Cayce files his story on Media Matters ZA

Thank you for making contact.

In order not to compromise my current professional status, I regret that I am not able to provide a photograph. Unlike many media workers, I do not use social media or blogs to advance my career or raise my professional profile. My comments on Twitter, Facebook and in my blog do, however, reflect my sincere beliefs and convictions, not without a healthy degree of scepticism and cynicism meliorated by a natural tolerance and affection for others.

I was born and educated in the Eastern Cape where my late mother, a journalist, was a founder member of Alan Paton's Liberal Party, the Black Sash & the South African Institute of Race Relations. As a young person I grew up in the company of journalists and was privy to news and information which did not always make it into print. Some of our friends and acquaintances were detained and forced into exile.

As a student I was deeply influenced by two books: Robin Cranford's "Leave Them Their Pride" and Arthur Keppel-Jone's "When Smuts Goes". Both dealt in fictional form with likely outcomes for South Africa should the white minority persist in its policies of oppression, exploitation and discrimination. Shortly after graduating from Rhodes in 1971 I left South Africa and have since lived mainly overseas.

As stated in my Twitter profile I studied Law at Rhodes, did post-grad work in History and Education and have since worked mainly in the field of Education and Psychology. In my second year at Rhodes I did a few weeks work experience on the EP Herald, mainly court reporting. In 1980 - 1981, while tutoring part-time in Education at Rhodes, I was assistant editor of Grocotts for some months.

By 1982 I had given up hoping for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in South Africa and settled permanently in Australia. Re-establishing ourselves and bringing up children occupied most of the years that followed.

In 1994, after considerable soul searching, I went to the South African polling station in Canberra and voted ANC. While believing that democracy cannot survive without a strong opposition there seemed, at that time, to be no viable opposition to the ANC other than our old foe, the Nats. Mandela I could support. I first became acquainted with Helen Zille's work while reading for my dissertation and watch the rise of the Democractic Alliance with interest and cautious optimism.

In 1996 we connected to the internet for the first time. In 1998, thanks to a cousin working for MWeb at the time, I became aware of nascent social media which - then - took the form of mailing lists, newsgroups, bulletin boards and interactive discussion forums. I began to follow MWeb's Cape Town Live and Cyberjani's Talkback, although I knew nothing about Jani Allan whose shenanigans had not made it into the Australian press.

Later I joined the Mail & Guardian forums and contributed mainly to them for ten years. Between 2008 and 2010 the Mail & Guardian gradually distanced itself from the forums which had become increasingly reactionary and right wing. South African discussion forums, patronised mainly by so-called 'whites', have long had a problem with hate speech way beyond anything the ANCYL has been accused of.

Early last year MWeb took responsibility for the former M&G forums and I ceased to be a member. After a few months away from social media, a couple of them spent hiking on long distance footpaths in the UK, I decided to join Twitter last October.

Because of my early life experiences, and family connections with four close relatives currently working as journalists, my heart is in newspapers. I believe passionately in a free and responsible media while, at the same time, believing that mainstream media should not seek to duplicate the functions of social media by allowing reader comment, and disputes between readers, to flow unchecked.

Reputable media organisations I believe, should exercise editorial oversight as was done with the traditional Letters column in the print media. So-called free speech and comment is the province of personal blogs and the social networking sites who are better able to support the burden of cranks and idle mischief makers (trolls). FWIW, that's what I believe since newspapers do owe a certain responsibility to their loyal, paying readers, advertisers, shareholders and the broader public. The role of a reputable newspaper has never been that of a soapbox. Certain kinds of "free speech" are best confined to Speakers' Corner where the public can greet it with the derision it deserves.

Regrettably I am not a regular on Facebook and saw your message too late to respond. I stand by all my comments, although always grateful to be found 'wrong', and am happy for anything I tweet or otherwise publish to the internet to be retweeted, repeated or whatever. As I have said, I am not using social media to build a career, a personal profile or a reputation. It is simply my way of following my interests and engaging in my first love - the news.

My late Mom, a social reporter during the week, often manned the Telex room at EP Newspapers in Baakens Street on weekends to earn a little extra.

The Telex was to newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s what the internet is today. Short news items, like Tweets, would arrive on the long sheets of paper spewing out of the machines which chattered like the huge typewriters they resembled. Reports would have to be torn or cut off and delivered to the appropriate in-tray. Discarded paper became my plaything, for drawing, laying out my own version of the news, paper boats & planes. When I tired of this, I wandered the, largely empty on weekends, corridors of Newspaper House. As a special treat on Saturdays we might watch the presses rolling with the weekend edition of the Evening Post and receive a copy of the paper hot from the press.

Thank you for the opportunity to bore you and wallow in nostalgia. Keep up the good work.