This morning, at an extraordinary hour in the UK, ‘Boston Calling’ fell silent.
This excellent program, looking at the world and its attitudes to American culture, has been a feature of the BBC World Service for eight years and some 400 episodes. In the UK at least, its wisdom will be heard no more. I have no doubt its reputation in The United States was similarly high – not least because it would have found its audience at a more wakeful hour!
A sad event, then, and one which brought to my mind another great radio milestone when the late Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letters from America’ came to an end. Cooke was among the last of the old school of journalists, greatly respected in Washington, and I value the CD collection of his broadcasts that sits on an undershelf no more than a couple of feet from this keyboard.
Yesterday I took delivery of a new laptop. Now this will seem to you a complete disconnect, until I tell you it follows a trend of most new machines in omitting a DVD drive. To play my Alistair Cooke CDs I must now resort to my older laptop (which has been commandeered by the Memsa’ab, incidentally), or this PC, which is in itself what is now referred to as a ‘traditional machine’.
Museum pieces! Or so they will become when they have served their time, and our new machines have only a card slot for s substitute. In less than a generation, a plethora of technical innovations has come and gone, at faster and faster pace. Old information technology is succeeded by new, and the circle of obsolescence closes in.
Exaggeration? Who among us still owns floppy disks, tapes or cassettes, and where can you read them if you do?
1600 years ago the last of the great ancient civilizations reached a stage in its dilapidation where it withdrew from, rather than threw innovation into, the greater part of its former empire. The Roman presence in its satellites and client kingdoms did not end dramatically with the sacking of Rome, rather it diminished, whilst retaining its exclusive influence in one key aspect of power; the written word. Once a pillar of all Roman culture, transcription became restricted to the gospels, which were painstakingly copied by monks in their role as specialist scribes. Their language, Latin, devolved into a preserve of the learned and a complete mystery to the common man.
Except in the hands of a narrow elite written records almost disappeared. Looking back upon this time we call it the Dark Age – when few were sufficiently literate or wealthy enough to have access to writing. Only with the invention of the printing press in 1440 did the dam to that reservoir finally burst.
Now, as we approach the end of the present cycle of civilization, as the influence of the current major powers liberalizes and begins to turn upon itself, I see troubling similarities to the plight of those abandoned in the changing fortunes of Rome. Step by step we are turning our backs upon our most reliable method of recording knowledge and our most effective way of teaching others. Pamphlets or books have been available to all of us constantly – easily attainable, relatively inexpensive. But this is not certain anymore. The printed word is under threat; fewer and fewer books find their way to press. And those same words committed to the hard drive, to the memory card or to our tablets cannot be trusted to be readable in forty years’ time, let alone four centuries. Recording them, transcribing from one medium to another is possible, of course, and will in all probability remain so, but their availability will diminish. Furthermore, it places responsibility onto the shoulders of our modern ‘monks’, the specialists in the world of algorithms and code: a new elite.
In times of change, some things must remain inviolable. Curation of the book and the languages that free us all from the tyranny of ignorance must be entrusted to those who would spread knowledge, rather than use it as power.