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.  


There are times when I struggle with technology.

All right, there are a lot of times when I struggle with technology.

The pattern is generally thus:  I will purchase a small item of advancement – what I believe those who know call a ‘peripheral’ – and I will set it up.   I will find shelf space, I will chase cables, I will identify a power source (see how techie my language is?  For the uninitiated, read ‘find a socket’).

I will connect it (plug it in).

I will ‘download the app’ to my computer (and yes, I do know that ‘app’ is short for ‘application’ although I have no idea why a perfectly adequate word has to be murdered in so brutal a fashion – it adds an element of doubt; after all, ‘app’ might also stand for ‘appliance’.  Some might think they are being asked to connect to a washing machine?)

In what my instructions assure me will be ‘three simple steps’ I ‘activate’  (switch on).

My computer either stares blankly back at me, or crashes.  Once I swear I even heard it laugh.

I am still at the tolerant smile stage. I ‘boot up’ (switch it back on) and discover I am in ‘safe mode’.  I switch off, then boot up again.   I return to the printed instructions which came with the peripheral, and re-read the paragraphs entitled ‘Quick Set Up’.  If computer science has made no other useful gift to the language, it has redefined the word ‘quick’.

A word or two about instructions: in fact, I am not afraid to use the word ‘advice’ when I address manufacturers on this point.

Sirs, your major market share is firmly planted in the age 55 – 75 bracket, a fact largely determined by income.  You therefore cater to a demographic whose eyesight is restricted by the dimness of age; so why do you persist in printing your instructions in 6 point Arial?  And while we have the ball in our possession and seem to be running with it, is it really economically necessary to print each paragraph in eighteen different languages?  Are your profit margins so tight you cannot afford a little extra paper?

If you must use a multitude of tongues, can I then suggest that at very little added cost you might include all three versions of English?    British (my own mother tongue), American (which shows what you can do to a language if you simply stop trying), and ‘Chinese Manufacturer Incompetent’.

As a British person, I am acutely aware of the differences between the first two examples.   It has taken me a long time to master the nuances of technological jargon, and I am not there yet, but I can generally get by with the assistance of an interpreter:  I now know, for example, that ‘Fatal Error’ does not mean my life is in immediate danger, and ‘this web page is not responding: click to reload’ means ‘touch nothing on pain of suffering ‘help from Microsoft’, or ‘just wait for me to digest the last lot of useless updates and I’ll catch up’.

I have learned never, ever, in any language, to seek help from Microsoft.  Seek help from a friend, investigate on the web, or consult a fellow victim, but never Microsoft.   As one of British extraction (an Englishman), their instructions are incomprehensible to me.  We do not share a language I understand.

Confronted with ‘Chinese Manufacturer Incompetent’ my tolerant smile becomes a grimace.  I begin to line up expendable items for wall-throwing in my mind, as I try to wrap myself around ‘if download this product ensure all Gbs are enough to be ready, or extend.’   And what is ‘drive disassembly’, and why use ‘stylus pen not provide’?

Eventually I succeed, usually on the back of advice from other poor schmucks who have suffered as I suffer, in installing the ‘drivers’ for my new appendage, and it takes off on a little life of its own, surprisingly impervious to any instruction I give it, but working!

Buoyed up by this achievement, I foolishly assume that my tablet will now install the ‘app’ with consummate ease.  And that is when I discover my particular model of tablet doesn’t like the people who created this ‘app’.  It does not speak to them.  It will not recognise their software. In fact, it has an ‘app’ of its own, which, had it not been outdated last week, would have done everything much better.

This is the point at which ugliness breaks out:  my tablet has made a few personal remarks directed at my computer, and my computer has taken offence.  At best my Wi-Fi refuses to let anybody talk to anybody else; at worst a scuffle breaks out in which other ‘apps’ threaten to become involved.  They all turn upon the newcomer, and the fans start throwing things onto the pitch.  I, the referee, must take a firm hand, so with websites cascading around me I step in, and everything goes black.

Decisive action is needed.  I hit the ‘off’ switch, and go and read a book.