Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Communication and the Internet


I have kept a diary for some sixty-two or sixty-three years.  That’s about 22,000 short pages.  Why?  Basically, for two reasons.  In college I realized that we knew almost everything that famous people such as Winston Churchill or FDR did every day of their adult lives but that often I couldn’t remember what I had done the week before, or even the day before.  We only have one life to live and if we don’t remember living it, who will?  Does a tree falling in a forest make a sound if there’s nobody there to see it or hear it fall?

Another reason was that it seemed to me that my parents had never been young, that is, my age, so I wanted to record what I did and thought at the time so that when I got older and would have my own children, I would retain some insight of what it was like to be their age.  Was it worth the trouble?  I think so.  When I want to write about something in my earlier life, I can find times and dates and details that would not exist otherwise.  As for me relating to my children’s lives and times, the result has been less clear.  Sometimes I have the impression that they remember their own youthful attitudes less well than I remember mine.

Besides the diary, I’ve written a lot while I was working, from building specifications to reports, letters and schedules.  In the nearly two decades since I was last gainfully employed, I’ve had more time to write what I want, and when I want, which is usually when I should be sleeping.  If I kept a pen and paper next to my bed, perhaps I’d be a prolific writer but I have to rely on my memory carrying over to morning when I can write down what seemed so clear during the night.  It doesn’t always work and is probably an unhealthy way to live but I’m not the only person to be able to think better in bed than during the day’s routine.

Over fifty years ago I married a lovely Italian with great language skills.  We have always spoken English with each other and her insistence on precision and her curiosity about the meaning of words has helped my English more than any school ever did.  However, when we had children, we agreed that I would refrain from speaking Italian with them to avoid corrupting their Italian and retarding their learning of English.  This led to limited verbal communication with them, since at mealtimes conversation would be in Italian and I would remain both silent and sometimes out of the loop altogether.  Perhaps this pushed me into writing more.  Now the process is repeating itself all over again with grandchildren, who are scattered in three countries.

Technology has brought us incredible advances in communications possibilities.  We have Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp and other similar apps which can connect us, usually at no cost, to anyone anywhere in the world.  It’s wonderful but during the covid pandemic we’ve learned both the advantages and the limitations of all this connectivity.  Group meetings can be a disaster.  It’s nice to see people and hear their voices but when there are more than two voices it isn’t long before none are really heard and a frustrating chaos ensues.

Communication possibilities change all the time.  On the downside, my hearing, like that of many of my peers, has gotten worse over time.  Hearing aids help but along with audial decline, my Italian language skills, never good in the best of times, continue to atrophy.   Whatever language they speak, children speak differently among themselves than they do with adults.  For that matter, many sub-groups do the same.  Slang is developed to exclude outsiders and create a bond with a reduced group of insiders with similar attitudes, age, identities or whatever else they think they have in common.  If your mother tongues are different, the isolating effect is magnified.  I mention slang as an agent of exclusion, but professional jargon is much the same.  It keeps the layman out.  Architects, doctors, lawyers, art dealers and investment advisors all do it, not so much as to eliminate communication as to maintain their superior status.  When overdone, communication does fail.

Recently, the sister of my American son-in-law described in her own blog the difficulty of learning the younger generation’s elaborate standards of etiquette for texting shortcuts and emoji use.  Her children are beyond college age so I was perplexed.  Why would a fully grown and articulate person bother to try to understand the wilful subversion of language by people seeking to limit their communication to their peers?

With my American grandchildren, it is lovely to see and hear them so easily from across the ocean but the group nature of the electronic connections limits communication largely to waving and smiling.  My English grandson is remarkably erudite for his age and uninhibited in speaking.  However, he speaks with an accent used mostly by the Queen and people in certain parts of Westminster and Chelsea, which together with his pre-adolescent voice, largely in frequencies which my hearing aids try to augment, sometimes make our vocal exchanges as difficult as those with the Italian grandchildren, mumbling in Italian childspeak.  Their Italian is virtually incomprehensible to me, and sometimes even to their parents, but ironically, when they speak in English, they are far easier to understand than their English cousin.  George Bernard Shaw is usually credited with saying that the English and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language although Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell and Dylan Thomas all expressed similar sentiments.  People tend to forget it but the English colonized the US before the industrial revolution and the languages in each place have evolved separately ever since.

For many centuries, records of what went on in the world were kept in libraries.  Andrew Carnegie became as famous for all the libraries he built as for how he made all the money used for them in the first place.  Many of those have survived but many have been repurposed.  Libraries everywhere are struggling and often being defunded.  What will happen to the society’s collective memory?  Will Google keep everything?

That brings us back to computers.  Within my family we have differences of opinion there almost as strong as in politics, except that the alliances are reshuffled.  In the past few decades there has been a duopoly in computer software as absolute as the monopolies over a hundred years ago of Standard Oil and US Steel.  The proprietary systems of Microsoft and Apple have dominated everything.  Recently Android has moved in on cell phones, creating autocompletion nightmares even worse than those of its predecessors.  Open systems essentially refer to Linux, which is used by few people but by many, if not most, governments.  Public agencies, such as NASA, cannot afford to be tied to one dominant monopolistic company.  The battles of Facebook and Apple begin to be reminiscent of the battles between streetcar producers and the car and tire companies a century ago.  As then, it’s usually the public that loses.

The systemic divisions are reflected in those of many families, whose members go with the system they prefer.  Microsoft and Apple have been forced by economics to make compromises with each other and with other systems to avoid the sort of fiasco we witnessed a few decades back with video systems.  I still have many videos in the Betamax format which I haven’t seen since they lost the competition with VHS.  Will half of our computers also go extinct soon?

Many Apple users love their devices despite, or maybe because of, their very high prices.  Microsoft dominates much of the market but seems more willing to collaborate to maintain its dominance.  I find Linux simpler and easier to use but it requires a computer expert to keep it updated and there are few of them around.  I certainly don’t qualify.  The grandchildren show promise but will they learn anything more than Microsoft wants them to know?  Will any of them want to devote their lives to studying the workings of computer operating systems?

How the collected wisdom of the world is to be preserved is beyond my grasp but within families and groups of friends, the sharing and storing of data will continue to be a problem with so many incompatible programs already in existence and more emerging every day.  We will have to learn to be versatile and knowledgeable with regard to all the systems, their defects and limitations.  Our many devices can now be synchronized but what happens when the sync doesn’t work?  Who do we ask, Google, Apple or Microsoft, or is it up to the browser?  It doesn’t really matter.  Nobody is listening.  A website will put you in touch with other members of the public who may be able to offer advice, as well as asking “was this article helpful?”.

When computer use and the internet got going on a wide scale, it seemed to be mostly about the sharing of information.  Increasingly it appears to be driven by advertising and entertainment and the sharing of information sometimes means texting people who are standing right behind you instead of turning around and talking to them. The sharing and saving of information, other than that by government security agencies and advertisers, seems to have withered away.  Sharing cat and dog videos can be enjoyable and perhaps we may even be helped somehow by governments knowing our whereabouts but how many books can be stored with the same number of bites as yesterday’s forgotten phone video of us waving from the Eiffel Tower.

If the i-clouds and our computers are all full of selfies and the libraries are all turned into discos or restaurants, where will the books go?  Maybe it’s time for the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt, the trustbuster, to appear and make his presence felt. The monopolies have gotten out of control again.