Boston is Silent

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.  

Natural Laws according to Fred

Once upon a time I lived in a tree. I was probably quite furry, because the tree did not 220834951_nman_xlargehave central heating, and I may have weighed something like 98lbs, most of which was devoted to muscle; the kind of muscle you need if you are going to climb a lot of trees, but not much use as body fat to keep me warm. I didn’t have a great deal of brain; I didn’t need it. Before she threw me out of her tree, Mummy taught me which berries were food, and the bushes on which they were to be found. Paradise, she said, is a tree that bears berries you can eat – then you never have to climb down. Apart from that, she didn’t teach me very much.

I had one asset of much greater value than my brain, and that was my speed. I could run. You see, although berries were not particularly nice, they were survival. When one of us discovered a new bush the competition could get really serious, and first there got most berries. Of course, that meant the winner got more berries than the others, and that made them fatter, so they were slower next time. From this was created the first law: Natural Balance.

There were those among us with just a little more brain. They could predict when a bush was about to yield berries, and camp out either on the ground or in trees nearby, so as to be sure to get more than their share. There was a lesson here, however: the saber-toothed tiger was cleverer than they were. He camped out there too, but he wasn’t waiting for the berries. The more scientific name for the sabre-toothed tiger was the Smilodon, probably because he always looked so happy. After all, he was never short of food. From this was created the second law: clever people are always looking for ways to circumvent the laws of nature and natural balance. They always fail. And they never learn.

When we were happy, the rule was simple. The third law: one person one tree. There were occasional neighborhood disputes, but never anything of substance, until there were more persons than trees. This shouldn’t have happened. Two persons sharing a tree did not work, because it meant one had to be underneath. Now, in those days my bathroom habits would have been less than perfect, so it was obviously more desirable to have the penthouse. With the onset of competition, the law of Natural Balance was violated. The first real evil in the world was born. The clever people learned that Might is Right.

Now I began to lament my lack of brain, because the day that clever people discovered how to use strong people was the day the fourth law was written. Why get yourself killed if you can persuade bigger, more aggressive persons whose power is physical rather than mental to die for you? Law number four, then: the most powerful force in nature is hope.

Simple people have simple loyalties: promise me four and twenty virgins and I’ll be on the next train to Inverness. Tell me this ticket is the winning ticket and I will keep on buying it. Convince me I will have a place at my Lord’s right hand and I will gladly do whatever you ask. What is more, I will be loyal. Week after week, year after year, on one last walk into the crowded market place wearing that large, rather awkward belt: as long as you never actually honor your promises I will serve your cause. I have been taught to hope.

Today I walk in a world ruled by clever people who dedicate their whole lives to contravening the natural laws. More people pay more taxes, so they continue to cram the trees with people. They dispatch the strong to the bushes that bear the thick black food of life, not caring where the smilodon lurks or how many victims that barbaric creature might take. All they seek is the power that ownership implies, and hope is their tool for controlling those who serve them; for keeping them on the knife-edge of life.

And they still haven’t learned. They haven’t understood, somehow cannot, that the first law must be observed. You can prevaricate, you can evade, you can use all the powers of paper progress to persuade; but when the trees are too full, when promises too oft repeated are unfulfilled, the decisions which finally steer our species are not made by you: they are made by those for whom hope has died: the engine drivers, the laborers, the shelf-stackers, the young with no future and the guy on the station who sleeps in a cardboard box. The Visigoths, the Vandals, the Vikings; the ordinary inhabitants of the trees will always be there, and ready to be led. It just takes another clever person with a message of hope which, however nonsensical, is new.

It is, in the circularity of reason, simply a return to that first law as written on a billion ancient graves – Egyptian, Macedonian, Persian, Roman, Mayan – all the great empires that were the dreams of clever people.

One person, one tree. Natural balance has to be observed.