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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Kindling New Tastes

Most people would agree that the past 50-60 years have seen unprecedented technological progress, and most of that has been of the electronic kind. That follows a long period of immense technological progress that was mainly of the mechanical kind, stemming from the Industrial Revolution. The latter period, we tend to characterize as the 'information age', mainly because we have seen the advent of computers as extensions of most aspects of work and home life and with that has come the packaging of large bodies of information that can be transferred without any physical movement of people or things.

After I joined the Bank of England in the early 1980s, I recall the amazement I had when I first came across a fax (or facsimile) machine and the first documents that I received and sent--loan documents to do with Mexican debt and its rescheduling. They were a few hundred pages long and I remember that it took a long time for everything to pass through. At the end, I had a reasonable copy of the blessed thing and could crawl over it at leisure. Then I encountered electronic writing in the form of word processing software and again I was amazed at what could be done with a new machine for me, portable computer--or as it was at the time a luggable computer by Compaq,which for many weeks I would lug between my office and my home (I was very fit and strong in those days). I was quite incredible to see words pop up on the screen and to then edit text and move it around with the click of a few buttons. Man, was I on the cutting edge. Then, documents were still printed out and photocopied, but gone were the days of hours of writing in manuscript, to have it typed to have it edited to have it retyped, etc. My secretary at the time was of course leery of these changes as she could see quickly that only time would stop me from not needing her particular skills of using an electronic typewriter and managing the intricacies of an IBM golf ball.

Time waits for no man it seems, and soon afterwards we moved into another world, that of electronic mail. Now, I could be anywhere in the Bank and I could get messages about all sorts of work subjects, and documents, and offer comments, edit the documents and reply and share all sorts of file. We were still in the late 1980s and my life was moving so fast that I was not sure what more I could handle. In ten years, life moved spending most of my time poring over paper documents and writing on paper, to some scrutiny of paper documents and writing mainly on a machine. We did not have or want at that time documents that were electronically edited, and those who preserved the archives and files were fighting to find ways to manage the new form in which records were being created. From binders with reams of documents we moved to information on diskettes. When there was a fire at the Bank it also showed people the weaknesses of our work practices because many of the new electronic records were never back-up and that meant having to recreate data and documents after the fire.

After I left the Bank and went to the Fund in the early 1990s came the advent of the World Wide Web and Internet pages and searches and spending more hours on the computer rather than just a few, but still having to read through mountains of paper, because the Fund produces documents in reams.

When I was based in West Africa for a few years, while I had all of this technology at my finger tips--with my communications set up by way of a satellite, or a cable connection--I had to watch and work with people who had very little electronic equipment and what was available was limited to certain officials. I had to reacquaint myself with seeing people lugging large bundles of files when it was time to discuss topics, and there I was with a diskette in my pocket.

For someone who loves to write by hand and loves pens, I was thinking the other day how little actual hand writing I now do--mainly jotting notes to myself, writing checks (very few), and signing permission forms for school.

With all of these changes resistance has always been present. People tell funny and sad stories about how some have struggled to make the transition from the world of paper and pen, to computer keyboard, screen and diskettes and now memory keys. People steadfastly refused to use the computers assigned to them and were almost literally hauled screaming and kicking to turn them on and start to work. Word ground down to a halt for some and they began to see the activities dwindle and their participation lessen as they were not following discussions electronically. We know that at the top of many organizations the leaders are not really as au fait with technology as many would like to think. Vice President Biden gave new meaning to that this week when he talked about the 'number' for the presidential web sites to deal with the stimulus package that he will oversee (www.recovery.gov). This VP did not claim to have invented the Internet so I will cut him some slack, but he did look awkward.



We know of CEOs and managers whose computers sit on their desks still covered. By contrast, we have the tech savvies like New York City's Mayor Bloomberg (he of the terminal and who has set his main office up to look like a trading room, and who fired an employee for playing computer Solitaire) and now President Obama (he of the BlackBerry), who appear to be near the front edge.

I was a bit bemused by a conversation I was in last week about reading. Here, an interesting reaction is being played out. Avid readers mainly get their jollies by inhaling the words from a printed page, usually a bookand we can say also newspapers and magazines. Many of these same avid readers spend much working and private time reading documents in electronic form (word processed or now in PDF form). But, somehow, there is a resistance to letting go of the book for an electronic reading device, such as Amazon's Kindle. No one of my generation knows life before books and newspapers, but most of us will know that the printed word was not there many centuries ago. Things were scrawled on stone, on wood, on other materials; if copies were needed then the process had to be started again. We must give thanks to the advent of the printing press, for sure.

But someone protested vociferously that the Kindle is not a book. Well, I can see that. But so what? It contains what I want to read. Those who have moved to this new device will say that by electronically downloading the text that they want they have in the space of a small paper back, maybe 1500 books and a device that will function for two weeks when fully charged. Great for travellers. Imagine being in hospital for a few days or even weeks. Those who are book lovers say "It's not the same". But nor is reading the newspaper online. They will argue that they would prefer to be able to turn the pages of the book, and also a real newspaper, but make a concession with the latter. I know for example that every day I read about a dozen newspapers online before I start work, and they cover the main UK, US, Jamaican, Bajan editions. I also read several periodicals online. My house is only cluttered with the copies of the local papers that are delivered to my house, rather than piles of other papers. One old Bajan wag gave me a reasonable argument this morning: a book is useful if you are in the bathroom and run out of toilet paper. I should really tackle this harder. In terms of the environment, I would have thought that those who urge 'think before you print this e-mail message' and live in the world of the electronic document would be amongst the first to see that buying another printed book has just chopped down the same trees that were about to be saved. I cannot argue with the excited feeling that comes from having a box or packet of books delivered, in a era where so little personal mail is sent. I would think in terms of finances that downloads are usually much cheaper than purchasing a book. I also recall a request sent to me by my wife when I was in Miami airport to look for a particular book. I would have needed to go back through security to find the book shop and perhaps risk missing my flight. It was not bought, after a sales clerk told me that it was not available. But online, it sure is. But I do need too much convincing on this.

The fundamental opposition to electronic readers I am hearing does seem like double-think to me. I was especially bemused to hear the opposition from a doyenne of a book club, and think of the problems sometimes caused because the set book is not available to everyone: "I'll read it quickly and pass on my copy" shouldn't really apply. (I remember the days of a file binder or newspaper making the office rounds and sometimes hitting my desk so long after the events as to be ridiculous.) If everyone had a Kindle texts could be downloaded in minutes, even by those who are off the island on some work assignment in deepest Belize or the jungles of Guyana. Maybe that has not been considered.

I can always handle an argument that is just about a preference, but let's see that for what it is. I am going to try one of these electronic readers over the next few days and will be interested to see if I can read it under the bed covers without a light. If so, that could be worth a year of marriage counselling. I have had a few bad instances with electronic gadgets and water, so would be wary of taking the Kindle to the bathroom, and would be very careful if I am near the swimming pool. But maybe it is less sensitive to damp than say a cell phone. I like it that the size of the typeface can be adjusted. I like it that it can be set to read the book or journal to me: that's so neat as I imagine being tired and having a book read to me. (I could see some parents using that to cheat their kids at bed time, and putting the Kindle on the pillow then walking out while the machine does the 'talking'.) Maybe, there is the 'last bastion' argument at work. True, not all change is good, and certainly not all change is welcome.

Well, I will play with this device for a few days, loaned to me by a friend, and see if it can rekindle my love of reading.

2 comments:

http://abebedorespgondufo.blogs.sapo.pt/ said...

Good blog.
Portugal

Venturemike said...

Good luck with the Kindle, Dennis. As someone who saves most of his book reading till he goes on holiday, I would love to try such a device.

As a journalist I suffered many of the trials and tribulations of first handwriting, then typing, then telephoning my ‘stories’ to one newspaper after another, when there was no electronic (fax, email etc) alternative.

As a television news Editor I had one of the first fax machines which linked two newsrooms together, and saved my outreach reporters having to telephone their copy laboriously to a lady with a set of headphones and a typewriter. It was the most enormous machine you ever saw and was always breaking down (It’ll never work, it’s just a giant word dustbin, was the main comment. And I sometimes wondered whether it was deliberately sabotaged by the Luddites after everyone had gone home.)

We also had trouble when we switched from using real film cameras to video for news coverage. One cameraman who always insisted his news looked better on celluloid anyway, also said that he couldn’t use the video machine because it didn’t make a noise so he couldn’t tell when the picture was “turning over”. The men from Sony, unfazed, came up with a little noise machine stuck to the camera that activated every time he pressed the button to shoot a picture so that our refusenik could “hear” the “film” rolling through the gate !

And just to really reminisce – I had to visit a national newspaper’s Scottish newsroom when they wanted me to sign on as a columnist. The Editor proudly showed me round the building and (even in 1994) I was shocked to see reporters tapping away at typewriters, using paper and carbon paper to write their stories on. I asked why they weren’t using computers and the Editor said, “Not so loud laddie you’ll upset the writing team. Come with me”. He took me up one floor and there was a duplicate newsroom replete with computers but all covered in dustsheets.

“This”, he said,”Is what they call Disneyland…”

“Why do you call it that ?” I asked.

(You have to do this in a Scottish accent, now:-)

“Because the reporters say it dis nae work…”