Saturday, 13 March 2010

Change and the perils of not keeping pace

Presumably back in the middle ages, a father could watch his son working in the fields and say ‘no, no, it’s a lot easier if you put your right hand there on the plough’, or an ageing master craftsman could tell a young apprentice ‘I think you’d find it easier with the tool at that angle’. Both generations used tools that had barely changed so they could share their expertise, and there must have been comfort in that.

Not much like that now, is it? Today we can see technology introduced and superseded within a few years. As a child I attended an exhibition which included a demonstration of fantastic new technology in the form of a teletype machine. I typed out a message to someone several hundred miles away and got an answer seconds later – it was awesome. But then we got faxes. And now we have e-mail. Who’d dream of using a teletype today?

Sometimes the potential of a new technology is quickly seen and soon fulfilled. Visionaries saw the life-changing possibilities of the internet, and they’ve been proved right. Sometimes, though, we get it completely wrong. For many years, there was a widespread sense that cinema and then TV would kill the book. Why would anyone read when they can watch the film instead? Exactly the opposite has happened: the release of the film boosts sales of the book on which it’s based (Jane Austen would be amazed if she came back). We seem to be publishing more books each year than ever before (over a million new titles a year around the world).

Back at the beginning of printing, there must have been people who got it just as badly wrong. There must have been those who said to Gutenberg ‘movable type? It’s a nice idea but it’ll never catch on. The people who buy books are connoisseurs who prize beauty. You don’t really believe that one of those mass-produced things of yours would displace a top-flight manuscript?’ I visited the Medici library in Florence some years ago and it was striking that they kept right on producing glorious illuminations twenty or thirty years after printing had become established. You can imagine the last illuminators, shutting up the workshop for the final time and saying ‘to us it’s bad enough, it’s the loss of a job, but to the world it’s the loss of something incredibly precious’.

The reaction of the individual to these transforming changes continues to be a problem to this day. One of the difficulties is that when you write a letter to someone (remember doing that?), you are engaging in an essentially private task: you are alone with your sheet of paper; the recipient is alone in reading it. There’s something intimate about the experience. That habit of thought has spilled over into the new media too. We sit at a computer and feel the same sense of privacy: there we are, and out there is the person we’re writing to, and the world shrinks to just the two of us.

This can develop into a real problem when we’re using a tool like Facebook. We may be writing for just one friend, but a lot of others can read what we write, and suddenly it can become frighteningly public. The experience feels private, but it’s anything but.

The situation can become extremely awkward, for instance if you’re an Israeli soldier who is feeling homesick and you make your Facebook status ‘On Wednesday we clean up Qatanah, and on Thursday, God willing, we come home’. Qatanah is a Palestinian village near Ramallah in the West Bank.

The Facebook message was seen as a breach of security, so the operation was cancelled, for a few days anyway. On the up-side, I suppose Qatanah at least won a few more days of peace before the tanks rolled in and young men were rolled up. As for the soldier, he was moved to ‘non-combat’ duties. At first I thought that he would probably have welcomed the move, but then I thought how the military works: if anyone can find something so unpleasant that it can make you regret being transferred to it from combat duties, it’s surely the army.

The whole incident just underlines how careful we need to be with new technology. That’s not new, of course. That new-fangled stuff with movable type was just as bad – people took to writing whatever they felt like and distributing it to hundreds of others, and sometimes they paid for it with their lives, in some cases at the stake.

Life may have been duller, but at least it was safer, when sons could learn from their fathers to use technology that had barely changed in a generation.

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

Today I discovered a site dedicated to embarrassing facebook updates, which only goes towards proving your point!