Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Hail to the iPhone, but let's not forget how to remember

I am, I confess, a poor seer of things to come. When the mobile-phone with camera was launched, I laughed a hearty laugh, haw haw haw, and said it would come to nothing.

Since then, it has sold umpteen zillion models, and even unborn babies and the recently dead are using them. So, clearly, this is not a place in which one can be sure to find the future, especially since I know so little about the present.

Now, I am aware the iPhone has been launched in London. And I also know that I have very little idea what the iPhone is.

It is, no doubt, the Swiss pen-knife of telephones, and it has the electronic equivalent of that special gizmo for getting boy-scouts out of horses' hooves.

However, as far as I can understand, the iPhone can connect its user to the internet.

At which point, we turn a corner in civilisation. If anyone anywhere can access the internet wherever they are on the planet, then the world is set to change in wholly irrevocable and unforeseeable ways.

In other words, the iPhone is probably going to have a greater impact on civilisation than even television.

This is our Gutenberg moment, the watershed which divides one epoch from another, so much so that the inhabitant of the latter epoch cannot begin to understand what life was like in the earlier one.

That was the case after the printing press came along, bringing with it mass literacy and the rapid communication of ideas.

There was more intellectual progress in the two centuries after Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type than there had been in the thousand years before; and with it came religious wars made more terrible by the technological advances the printing press helped promulgate.

The striking feature of the millennium preceding the arrival of the printing press is how very little things changed.

Dynasties came and went, as did plagues: but the plain people lived pretty predictable and thoroughly awful lives. The printing press didn't improve the lot of the ordinary people, but it created new and powerful elites, with driving ambitions, and moreover, the means (or so they thought) to achieve their ambitions.

With the Enlightenment, 300 years after Gutenberg, came the toxic conceit of both human knowledge and human perfectability: and therein lay the origins of totalitarianism and the horrors of the 20th century.

Yet it is conceivable that without the invention of the printing press, the world could have hobbled on in its medieval, stagnant way, indefinitely: powerful popes, powerful kings, powerful nobility, and an illiterate and oppressed peasantry within a pre-industrial, agricultural society, and all connected by the parchment and quill of the scribbling classes of monk and clerk.

Now, the deaths of books and newspapers have been predicted often enough, and I am not so foolish as to repeat that mistake.

I merely ask, how on earth can they survive if commuters on buses and trains, people in jungle clearings and round-the-world sailors, can connect with the internet using a device the size of half a biscuit?

And the internet, in turn, provides almost instant access to everything that has ever been discovered or known or written. Everything: the lot. What does this mean? I don't know - but it could well be the death of memory.

Why would you bother learning anything if you knew that it wasn't necessary - that you could look up everything on the internet?

But, of course, facts you come across on the net exist independently of any narrative, or culture or context. They are value-free, whereas most memory is based on a narrative in one's brain that gives us what we know a value of some kind, and usually in a cultural setting.

For this knowledge was usually acquired communally: through school and book, radio, film and television.

And once that knowledge was acquired, it shaped our brain, formed fresh synapses in our memory circuits, gave us opinions, beliefs, dogmas and bigotries.

Knowledge was what shaped us as individual human beings, and those humans into communities.

If people don't bother acquiring knowledge any more, if they don't feel the need to work to know things and to remember them, how will they become different?

We might just end up as the owners of incredibly swift fingers which can access whatever we need to know in an instant from cyberspace, but never incorporate that knowledge into our brain, where it helps shape our personalities.

So is that it? Is that the future? Are we doomed as a species to be extensions of technology, characterless drone-terminals for the internet?

Now all this is far too late for me, of course: I belong to the quill-and-parchment generation of the 21st century.

Nonetheless, there is surely an argument now for ensuring that children remember many, apparently 'irrelevant' things; for memory does not just connect us to the past, but as a communal act, it connects us to one another today.

Otherwise, the iPhone, and all that will follow from it, could turn us all into disconnected molecules, swirling around in the solar blizzard of cyberspace.

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