Reading less, thinking less, meeting less

Ian on Sunday
Stabroek News
June 20, 1999


The end of the world as some of us know and love it is close. The new electronic world order is well established and we cannot escape it: instant communication, computers in every office, class, and living room, the internet, immediate access to an infinity of data, online databases, proliferating networks and modems, e-mail connecting everyone, the information highway inexorably flowing straight through one's life at work and play.

Make no mistake. It is happening in the developed world and it is going to happen everywhere. Even if you want to opt out it will be impossible to do so. In the age of the motor car there are no horse-drawn buggies left to drive. Candles are romantic but electricity is essential.

However, even if drowning in the digital deluge is inevitable one doesn't have to like it. I, for one, loathe this new world, this worship of the God of undigested data. It means that people read less, think less, meet less. Relationships become impersonalised and activities become programmed. Human contact is increasingly lost. Computers and networks isolate us from one another. It will simply be a more unpleasant world in which to live. The internet flashes its message of knowledge-as-power, summoning us to surrender our real leisurely and lovely time on earth.

This brave new world spells the end of reading, except among a few who increasingly will be seen as an eccentric brotherhood inhabiting a strange and antediluvian world. As long ago as 1929 Paul Valery, the French poet and critic, saw what was going to happen and predicted that literature was on the way to becoming "as obsolete and as far removed from life and practice as geomancy, the heraldic art and the science of falconry". That day of the obsolescence of the book has now come much closer. George Steiner, the great polymath and book-lover, in his collection of essays No Passion Spent, writes, "It is fairly evident that the book as we have known it since the scrolls of the pre-Socratics will survive in only a more or less specialised format and function. Increasingly, printed and bound books will be instruments of scholarship, of local and specific distribution, and of luxury". With a sigh of resignation he says we can expect "the eclipse of reading, of the book itself". In such a world I know I will be a stranger.

Computers and networks isolate us from one another

Do not think for a moment that this new world of the wordless will be any more efficient or that living in it will be any easier. It certainly will not. It will be far more difficult and harrassing. Why should anyone think that the universal introduction of computers will magically improve the competence of the ignorant and the uneducated? Why should anyone think that computers and the cybernet will simplify life? Of course they will not. If anything it will be an infinitely more ignorant, duller and more demanding world which we are rushing to inhabit.

I once read a report with grim satisfaction. It told how some British and American military observers narrowly escaped being killed when watching a demonstration of state-of-the-art anti-aircraft cannon. The cannon suddenly started firing at them when its sophisticated computer-guided control system identified a nearby portable toilet as a hostile aircraft. I am not in the slightest surprised. It is just like a computer not to know the difference between a toilet and a plane. Computers don't know the difference between anything unless they are told and those who tell, after all, are who they have always been - poor, foolish, misguided, fault-ridden, infinitely fallible men and women, only now these are far worse educated and more narrowly focussed in their comprehension of how the actual, living world works.

Especially in Guyana now the new electronic world order is going to be a place littered with booby-traps and extreme frustrations. Even in the most advanced countries computers "crash" continually. They stop working because they are too hot or too cold or sited in rooms too dusty or too loud or too damp. They are ridiculously susceptible to passing viruses and prying hackers. In Guyana, of course, computer vulnerability and unreliability will be multiplied a hundredfold. The infrastructure is hopelessly antiquated. It is like bringing a sleek Mercedes to drive on a rock-strewn grass-track. Just by itself GEC is the computer buffs own worst nightmare.

Gearing Guyana up for effective entry into this new world of instant communication and universally available information is going to be a long and difficult haul. I can't say I am sorry about the delay. As Mort Sahl used to say, "The future lies ahead", and I don't at all like the look of it. But speak to my sons. They don't see it that way. In the end that is what is going to matter.


A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples