Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Legacy of Technology

In Lethal Weapon 4, Leo says to Riggs that he should get married again. He talks to him about his childhood pet Froggy, whom he loved. And he compares that love to his current friends, whom he loves. And he says "They're not better than Froggy, they're just different." And so today I'm wondering if we can say that about the modern world ...

On 27th October it was reported in the national press that more than seven million adults have never used a roadmap and 2.5 million of these would not know how to use one. "Critics also claim it reveals a lack of curiosity in drivers about where they are travelling." This was a tiny piece in the gizzard of the paper, but it gave me pause, because I was at that time writing the first draft of this blog piece.

Recently we had to take a major detour whilst travelling across country. For various reasons, mainly my aversion to it, using the Satnav was not an option. 

And suddenly we realised the truth in the old adage about travelling hopefully - because we actually took pleasure in our journey. Not using the satnav meant relying on map-reading skills. This provided a sense of achievement. But there was more satisfaction to be gained from learning about the landscape, the relative positions of the towns and villages and cities, the geography - for example the length and size of the river Nene.

Not only did the map-reading make the journey less of a chore, giving me a task, but it enhanced it because it was educational. Yes it might only have been learning for learning's sake and useful only for the next round of University challenge, but it turned it from a drudge journey into an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

I have a vision that the archaeologists of the future will discover nothing but mounds of old tablets and phones. They will never know what information is stored on them because they will never find the chargers (even we can't - unless they can locate the man drawer/plastic box). 

There won't be carbon-dating in the future; phones will be dated according to size. Children already know which generation they belonged to by the size of their phone proportionate to the size of their hand.There will be no other artefacts - all music, including instruments will have vanished, (in my beginners' recorder class just last week a seven-year-old told me he would practise at home with his 'recorder app') - along with books and paintings. Computers now do everything for us; isn't this what 20thc people were afraid of? We didn't realise how benevolent it would seem in reality.

(Although, my washing machine decides for itself whether or not it will spin the load. It is, apparently, protecting itself against uneven loads and therefore wear and tear. It exists to protect itself, not to serve me!)

We think we choose to use all this technology but the truth is there is no alternative nowadays. I have real difficulty buying presents for my 'kids' (19, 20 &22) because they have no 'stuff'; they download music, and films (although, thankfully, they still read and enjoy books made of paper.)

Suzannah Lipscomb wrote recently in History Today about being hauled to a stop when she realised that although she could explain what a cache-batard, or 'bastard-hider" was, she could not adequately describe the farthingale, or hoop worn under the skirts and realised that she had become "Divorced from the lived reality of the past". A problem for historians; a disaster for historical novelists! After a music appreciation course, she learned to understand Renaissance music and says "Just this quick look at some of the period's profound musical changes indicates how much music perfectly embodied the 16th-century worldview. Any understanding of historical artistic, religious, cultural and technological change is deepened by musical appreciation. What else about a period might we be overlooking when trying to produce a real and total history?"

When I was a student in the 80s I hopped on a bus and went to the Exhibition of Anglo-Saxon Art. I still remember how I felt when I saw the text of Beowulf and marvelling at it.  The person next to me was staring at the Beowulf Ms and explaining that it was in Latin. I smiled, said nothing. These people weren't dismissing the artefact, they had chosen to be at the exhibition, and yet their pleasure and understanding was diminished because they had no background information to help them understand just what it was they were looking at. Staring at a document when you understand its significance is both humbling and moving. I was moved to tears a few years ago when I went to Trinity, Dublin, and saw The Book of Kells.

As was Dr David Starkey in a recent series on television when he saw a document for the first time. His humble wonderment was a joy to behold. 

The modern world brings modern challenges to custodians of the past. Where once, old documents were in danger from fire and flood (and still are, of course - the Jorvik museum in York was recently flooded and staff worked round the clock to save as much as they could), new documents will be lost if they are not backed up, backed up again and then sent to the cloud.

'History' is ever-changing, too. I learned modern Russian when I was a student, which was no use at all for looking at old documents. Four letters were eliminated from the Russian alphabet in 1918 but many more hadn't been in use from about 1750

Nowadays we possibly have a greater sense of what needs to be preserved and archived.  Perhaps though we are more discriminating about what we keep and what we discard?  Jane Austen's sister famously burned her letters, so maybe selective archiving is nothing new?

And of course it's not just selective archiving, but a different morality. A famous scene deemed offensive was cut from all future showings of Fawlty Towers. But isn't this excising history? A recent sale of Margaret Thatcher's dresses meant that these items were not kept for the nation which, whatever your politics, might represent a case of a political decision overriding historic consideration.

And technology CAN help the historian/historical novelist, with archives available on-line. Professor Simon Keynes has been instrumental at Trinity Cambridge in making the extant Anglo-Saxon charters available - with translation - on-line.

But with our ever-increasing dependency on technology, something has been lost. On our impromptu cross-country journey that day, I commented that the younger generation would not have been able or bothered to do this, relying solely on Satnav which gets you there without giving you any sense of where you've been or how you've arrived at your destination (and I would say that the same is true of studying history generally - the knowledge of the route is important, if we are to have any understanding of the destination.) 

The kids would argue "So what - we got there didn't we?" But my response would be "Yes, but you don't know how." What is true of the car journey is also true of life. We should care just not about the destination but also about the journey. I think this applies to our understanding of history, too. And I don't just mean the essentials of knowing the timeline. Music, art, culture, why things were hidden up skirts - these things matter. Will our modern-day equivalents be preserved for future analysis?


  1. Grewat article. Thanks for sharing :-)

  2. Thank you Christoph -glad you enjoyed it :)

  3. Great post, so true. I have photo albums showing family life right up to the mid 2000s and then they stop - all digital and on computer, but not the same, and they won't last....

  4. Yes, same here Stephanie. Although the 'kids' have so many photos because it's cheaper for them than in my day when you had to take your film to be processed, but I wonder how often they look at their pictures?

  5. Interesting and thoughtful post Annie. I have to say it rang bells with me. I was having a similar conversation with my husband at Xmas and mourned the loss of the photograph album, even though photos can fade. I have to say I love the map photo too. I have a coffee table with a very similar map under the glass. I don't like SatNav and can read a map and have navigated all over the UK, Europe and the USA using a map. Those little detours are what make it worthwhile. It is better to travel than arrive and sadly most people just arrive and miss the journey completely. Having said that, taking mother anywhere in the car is like having a human SatNav in the rear, giving instructions.. If ever she is in a vehicle with one, she argues with it as well.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Jane. The map is gorgeous, isn't it? I have a notebook with it on the cover. I, too, argued vehemently with SatNav once, high in the mountains of Co Wicklow, and declared to my husband that it was "her or me". We've used only maps ever since!

  6. Thank you - glad you enjoyed it :)

  7. A very thought provoking post, Annie. Thank you.

  8. Thanks Derek, glad you enjoyed it :)

  9. I REALLY enjoyed reading this post. Tweeted and shared on google +! My wish is if I could travel to do my research. One day...

    1. Thanks Stephanie - so glad you enjoyed the piece :)

  10. My father still relies on my map reading skills more than on his satnav when we travel together.

    Once I took a taxi for a longer distance and a bridge was flooded. The driver, relying on his satnav, turned round just to be guided back to the damn bridge. At which point I asked him if he got a map tucked away somewhere. He did, though he told me he's never used it and didn't know how. I found a way that would lead us across the river in a different spot and had to guide him 'turn left at the next crossing ...'-style to our destination. I don't know if he ever found the way back. :-)

    I admit I stopped keeping photo albums when I set up a blog and got a digital camera, because it is more fun to share the photos with more people than just auntie Gertrud. But I think it takes some work to preserve them in a meaningful way; something my blog - with information about the photos which are mostly of historical buildings and sites - offers better than just uploading the pics on Flick, Instagram or whatever.

  11. Hi Gabriele,
    thanks for that story - it illustrates the point so well. I must say that over Christmas with all the flooding we were trying to get home and I found my map-reading skills came in very handy BUT we were also using my daughter's smart-phone to update us as to which roads were closed up ahead!