Archive for the ‘culture’ category

Digital ephemera?

September 18, 2012

Although we now clearly live in a digital age, we are often still very hesitant about accepting its robustness. In fact, though I am an enthusiastic user of every digital device and all electronic media, even I can be uncertain about their durability. A couple of years ago I was asked by a group of schoolchildren to advise them what format to use for electronic data they wanted to put in a time capsule, to be opened in 100 years. Paper, I said without hesitation. I could not be sure that a disk, or a memory stick, or a DVD would still be readable in 100 years time, or indeed that they would not have degraded in the interim.

So what does that mean? Should we assume that what we consume in digital format is for the moment only? This question has been raised on some occasions in relation to ebooks: is reading literature (or anything else) in this format the same as reading a paper-based book, or is it in some way different? The author Jonathan Franzen has recently suggested that the ‘impermanence’ of ebooks makes them unsuitable for serious reading. This becomes an issue in universities when the prospect arises of distributing course materials entirely in digital format, so-called ‘etexts’. Some argue in favour of using these, others are more cautious; but the early evidence is that they can be very effective educational tools.

Personally, I am willing to read pretty much anything in ebook format, though if I believe that I will want to read the book again and may want to reference it in future, I’ll buy a paper copy. But textbooks are different anyway. Most students dispose of them after they have completed their studies. There is therefore little reason to conclude that having etexts is somehow worse than having traditional books; indeed the use of etexts may provide lecturers with an opportunity to use innovative pedagogy.

I still do not know how the digital world will develop, and I am absolutely ready to believe that what we use now in electronic format will not be useable in 30 years time. But I do believe that the principle of electronic reading will continue to be adopted, and the technology will eventually produce more durable products; and I see no evidence of any pedagogical disadvantage. We must continue to innovate, even if the books on my bookshelves will remain also.

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The end of newsprint?

June 11, 2012

Today marked a significant watershed in my life. This morning, as I do most mornings, I walked to the nearby newsagent. I wanted to buy a baguette for my breakfast, and copies of the two newspapers that I read every day. I bought the baguette. But I bought no newspaper. As I stood looking at the piles of papers, I suddenly asked myself why I was bothering, as I have apps on my iPad that allow me to read both the papers in question in their precise printed form. And so I went home and read the newspapers on the iPad. And I have to admit that it is possible, just possible, that I will not buy a hard copy newspaper ever again.

Of course we already know that newspapers, particularly those that are not coming to grips with the internet age, are dying. A number of them have already folded, and others are soldiering on, but precariously. Others are trying to save themselves by offering access to their websites in return for a payment.

Until recently I didn’t think that web-based newspapers were the future of news reporting. No matter how powerful the computer or how chic the laptop, it just wasn’t how one would read the news over breakfast. So I thought that the more astute newspapers would survive and would be able to continue to print hard copy. Now, with the phenomenal growth of the iPad and other tablet computers, this may be changing. I actually now find it easier to manipulate the newspaper with my fingers than to mess around with the paper pages. And I am not altogether alone in this.

I have a subscription to an iPad-based newspaper subscription service that, for less than £1 a day, lets me download all my normal newspapers in the exact print format. How can I lose?

And yet, I wonder what the future holds for news reporting. First, will there be a viable business model that sustains a network of reporters and correspondents for a coherent news organisation, not just services that take copy from others? Will advertisers support the kind of model I am now using? Will the anarchy of the internet, and the fact that anybody can set up a news site, destroy the reliability of news reporting? Will the tabloid world change, or maybe even disappear?

An uncertain world lies ahead.

Sic transit

May 29, 2012

A little while ago at a meeting, someone handed me a note which read, inter alia, ‘this must be done ab inissio.’ Somehow this stumped me, and it took me a minute or so to realise that the writer was talking Latin, and that what he had wanted to say was ‘ab initio’. Welcome, then, to what’s left of the world of Latin.

In fact, Latin was after 2000 or more years condemned to death when the Roman Catholic church decided to celebrate the Mass in the vernacular. With the few other bodies that had required Latin all abandoning the language by the late 20th century, it was clear enough that the language could not realistically continue to prosper.

In fact, by the 1980s it was pretty much gone. I still belonged to a generation that had to learn Latin at school. By the age of 10 I could speak Latin fluently, in the sense that I could string together words that would convey a clear meaning – even if I, like most others, had no absolute idea what the Latin of ancient Rome sounded like, phonetically.

I am not normally given to traditionalist nostalgia, but it is my firm view that the removal of Latin from the syllabus of schools and other educational establishments was a mistake. Young people no longer have this tool that would help them to understand the origin of words and the structure of grammar. There is  very little else, and certainly nothing more modern, that would have the same beneficial effect.

I doubt I could persuade anyone to mount the barricades with me in support of Latin. But I regret that. I hope someone will see sense and restore Latin. Tam celerrime.

Shutting it all out

January 17, 2012

Last year I was asked to deliver a lecture to a group of students. As I began my talk, displaying my usual skills of eloquence and persuasiveness, I couldn’t help noticing that a young person in the front row was wearing those little white earphones we have come to see everywhere ever since Apple launched the iPod. Not only was he definitely focused on what must have been his music, his fingers were drumming along on the desk, and there were small but visible nods of his head to accompany the beat. And then I noticed that another student, further back, also had earphones, though in her case I couldn’t tell whether she was equally distracted by music.

I shrugged and got on with it. It’s life. But it’s not just in the classroom. If you walk down any major city street, you will see dozens of people who are more or less oblivious to their surroundings and who are somewhere else entirely, wherever their music is taking them. It’s a modern equivalent of the account by the 19th century German satirical poet, Wilhelm Busch, of an English traveller walking along while looking through a telescope. Busch has him saying:

‘Warum soll ich nicht beim Gehen – sprach er – in die Ferne sehen?
Schön ist es auch anderswo, und hier bin ich sowieso.’

[‘Why shouldn’t I, he said, look into the distance while walking?
It’s beautiful elsewhere too, and I’m here anyway’]

In fact, Busch’s ‘Mister Pief’ ends up falling into a swamp because he doesn’t see where he’s going. Today’s earphone addicts run similar risks, or worse ones. A recent report found that there has been a significant increase in deaths or serious injuries to pedestrians wearing earphones. Looking occasionally at the conduct of road users with their white earpieces, you can see why.

Personally I love the iPod and its successors, and I will often sit at home with earphones listening to music. But that’s where it should be done. The rest of the time, we should live where we are, and experience what’s there. Including my lectures.

Television and nation building

October 18, 2011

Travelling between Ireland and Scotland recently. I was struck by one aspect of Irish life that may not, or at least not yet, be part of the Scottish experience in the same way: there is a shared conversation that accompanies Irish national life and that reaches into the community; and its fuel is television. Apart from the ongoing soul searching about the recession, national insolvency and the attempted economic comeback, the national conversation involves analysis of the current presidential campaign. This is not because the campaign has caught the public imagination; if anything, the conversation is often about how the candidates fall short. But the campaign is being fought over the airwaves, and the various live debates have been a major talking point. It helps that one or two candidates seem to be self-destructing in public, but generally the coming election is a shared experience of the national community, made possible because it is being broadcast to the country as it unfolds.

In fact, the shared experience of television is part of Ireland’s recent history. Almost everyone has some reference point, whether that is the iconic Late Late Show, or the political magazine programmes over the years such as Today Tonight and Prime Time, special series such as that on Charles Haughey, or just the Nine O’Clock news. Even as hundreds of channels became available through cable or satellite, the main national channels (and RTÉ in particular) stayed there as the focus of national conversation. This shaped the country’s identity: who can deny that Gay Byrne’s Late Late made modern Ireland what it is much more than any politician’s manifesto?

Over here in what is now my home in Scotland there is also something of a national conversation, but it is not securely anchored in the same way. Interestingly the key topic of that conversation is nation building, in the setting of the anticipated referendum on independence. But even as this topic is developed, it lacks the compelling support of national broadcasting, lacking in part because the broadcast media are part of a wider United Kingdom heritage. The BBC has a good bit of Scotland-specific programming, but is interspersed between the dominant shared British output. The same is true of STV, which is still on the whole the Scottish arm of the UK’s ITV. The iconic programmes are mostly British. Of course the national debate about Scotland’s future gets along fine anyway, but I do miss the immediate and compelling nature of the  national conversation I am used to in Ireland. I suspect that Scotland needs this also to secure its identity. Perhaps the time has come to consider a genuinely Scottish television station, to share the airwaves with the undoubtedly excellent BBC and other broadcasters.

Txt 4 u

October 9, 2011

Sending SMS (‘short message service’) messages on mobile phones is one of the communications phenomena of our day. The chances are that, since you last checked out this blog, some 3 billion text messages will have been sent and received across the world. And let us be frank, many of them will have been pretty annoying. I have no problem with texting per se – I do so myself, and keep in touch with some friends that way – but the shorthand used by many people is, I fear, doing terrible things to their capacity to express themselves in an articulate way in writing. As texts are restricted to 160 characters, people got creative about how to cram more information into that space. And so we had the dawn of the age of the txt; succinct messaging, just 4 u.

People sometimes suggest to me that my complaint is just part of the nostalgia that comes with growing older – that Shakespeare would have been horrified if he had been able to read Jane Austen and would have found her style to be lamentable – and that therefore texting is nothing other than the new mode of communication and that we should be making the best of it. I don’t think so. I don’t look forward to billions of Chinese learning to use txt English and for it to become the lingua franca of the world.

But then again, maybe I am just getting old… Or possibly even 2 old. That would not be so gr8.

The Bard as burden?

August 28, 2011

I recently took part in a conversation that I found extraordinarily troubling. Those taking part were two schoolteachers, one university lecturer and two businesspeople. The topic of conversation was secondary school reform. And the consensus of all those taking part, except for me, was that it was time to retire William Shakespeare from the curriculum. The arguments given in favour of this proposition included the amount of time given over to Shakespeare that could be spent on more contemporary drama; the way in which highlighting Shakespeare perpetuated an ‘English’ perspective on the world at a time when many other cultures needed more attention; the difficulty in making students understand the archaic language; the obvious problem inherent in the white maleness of Shakespeare.

So are these good points? Should we see Shakespeare as just one more dead white male taking up too much of our cultural attention?

In this anniversary year of the Authorised Version of the Bible (the ‘King James’ Bible), it may be worth recalling that this translation of scripture and the works of Shakespeare together more or less created the sound and flow of what we now know as English. Shakespeare was not just another author, he was a designer of what became the world’s primary language. Nor was his work focused on England, or even on an English understanding of history, culture and politics.

I am strongly in favour of encouraging today’s students to engage with modern literature, in English and other languages. But to imagine that this requires us to abandon Shakespeare seems, to me at least, to be absurd.