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.

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