Confessions of a thinking fogey

None of us can carry so much as a pair of scissors or our knitting needles on to an aircraft these days, but in recent times I’ve been carrying with me everywhere, even on aircraft, a loaded, pointed, sharpened dangerous idea. It is that the internet, like youth itself, is wasted on the young, the very creatures whose natural habitat it is thought to be.

Every year Edge: The World Question Centre puts a question to members of a flock of fine thinkers. This year’s question, put to 119 agile minds (one of them belonging to Australia’s Professor Paul Davies), is: What Is Your Dangerous Idea? The resulting socially, morally or emotionally dangerous 75,000 words of their essays make for stimulating reading.

The dangerous idea contributed by David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale University and chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies, is that the so-called Information Age isn’t dispensing any information.

‘What are people well informed about in this Information Age?’ he asks. He muses that perhaps in this Information Age (beginning in 1982 with the invention of the internet and the personal computer, but really breaking into a gallop in these present times) the only things anyone is better informed about are video games.

He says that while he’s not sure what’s happening in ‘scholarship in general’ in his field, science, average folk seem to know less than they did in 1985. He suspects people knew more about science in ’65 than they did in ’85.

‘What if,’ he challenges, ‘people have been growing steadily more ignorant ever since the so-called Information Age began?’

Professor Gelernter is being polemical—trying to prod our minds. Mine fancies that he may be quite wrong and that this Information Age, perhaps wasted on the young, may be the heyday of the thinking fogey.

Gelernter’s point of view is at the intellectual end of the common feeling among unthinking fogeys that the internet is an overwhelmingly anti-intellectual environment and only a kind of global psychic fair or porn supermarket.

But I, being 60 and quite well read and interested in the arts and ideas, begin to find the internet an indispensable tool of the thinking, feeling life. Here is an illustration of what I mean.

Just seven days before sitting down to begin this essay and stumbling about my rented apartment in Melbourne very early one morning, hurrying to get ready for work, I was half-listening to ABC Classic FM.

And so I only half-heard the introduction of a bewitching piece of music. The music involved some songbird-like trillings by what I thought was a clarinet, introducing and then supporting a contralto who warbled the kind of aria (somehow plaintive but somehow brave as well) that I hope will be part of the piped music of Heaven.

I had to know what that music was! But, distracted by shaving, I had missed everything in the presenter’s introduction save for the magic word Vivaldi.

Back in Canberra five days later, and with time at last to do some fossicking, I used the magic of the internet to go to ABC Classic FM’s web site, a place adjusted to these informative times. There, by clicking on ‘archived’ I was able to go to the day and rough time on which I’d heard the music. In the listing by time and composer of every recording played that day there was the information that the composer was Vivaldi, the name of the piece was the aria Come, come and help me from Vivaldi’s oratorio Juditha triumphans, and the performers included the contralto Birgit Finnila, warbler of the shaving-arresting aria in question.

Then there was the essential information of the name of the record company and the catalogue number of the recording. Telephoning my CDgrocer with this information and finding that he had the recording in stock, it was in my hand and then strutting its spiritually uplifting stuff from my CD player that very afternoon.

But there’s more.

The booklet that came with the CD was irritatingly minimalist in its information about a work about which I was shamefully ignorant and determined to know more. Turning to the internet again I was able to dispel this ignorance with just the few clicks required to take me into the treasure trove of material about the work.

But wait! There’s more.

The CD booklet has someone playing the salmoe, and it turned out to be a salmoe, not a clarinet, accompanying Finnila in the aria that first beguiled. What on earth, I asked Google to interrogate the internet for me, is a salmoe?

Google found almost at once (but alas, after taking me on an unsolicited visit to a blush-making pornography site rejoicing in the name of one of the words I’d innocently given Google to search with) the information that a salmoe, or chalumeau, is a 17th-century version of the clarinet, still popular with performers of ancient musick on authentic instruments. At one of the sites a cultivated French voice even told me, when triggered by my click, how to pronounce the word chalumeau. It is chah-LOO-moe.

But there’s even more than that.

Needing my memory jogged about the biblical story that Vivaldi illustrates in Juditha triumphans, I employed Google again to do that for me. Google obliged, promptly, but while also showing me doors (temptingly ajar) to information, with reproductions of the art works, of great paintings by people like Caravaggio and by Artemisia Gentileschi of the Bible’s story. They are paintings of how (in Judith, chapters 12 and 13) on behalf of her besieged people the plucky Judith slew the appalling Assyrian warlord Holofernes, cutting off his head with his own terrible sword.

I read on and on, gathering more and more information as I went, like a snowball enlarging itself into a snowboulder as it rolls down a slope, about the life and work of the fascinating and admirable Gentileschi. It emerged that she was a woman who painted Judith’s feat of bravery again and again as though thinking of her as a terrific soul sister displaying valour in an ugly, male world of which Gentileschi, a victim of rape, knew a great deal.

As usual when ogling works of art on the internet I was enabled to turn the paintings into postcards that I could email in a trice (‘Look at this, Jennifer!’) to anyone anywhere in the online world I wanted to share this information (and my delight in it) with.

This kind of happy, ignorance-dispelling rigmarole is an everyday kind of use of the internet made by this ostensible fogey. I doubt that the young are finding the online life such a godsend. The young are of course far more likely than fogeys to understand the nuts, bolts, cogs, flywheels and carburettors of IT and its contraptions. (Does my little Toshiba laptop have a carburettor? I think it probably does.)

The work I was doing in Melbourne, alluded to above, was in the media room at the Australian Open tennis where I was writing daily reports for a newspaper in Canberra. At the Open this technological miracle (of sending stories across Australia, across the world, instantly and with one or two clicks) is accomplished by a newfangled ‘wireless’ system (literally without the use of any wires to connect your PC to anything) and in ways which seem to me eerily like witchcraft.

The Open newsroom employs staff to come and sit at your PC first to connect you to this system and then to be there for the whole hectic fortnight to come and deliver you from IT trouble when it arises. This technological dimension of the Information Age is very, very stressful for fogeys, and when one of the Open’s young men shimmered to my side when I had my first IT crisis and I saw just how young he was, I thought (and told him to his boyish face) how ‘reassuringly young’ he was.

We like our doctors, psychiatrists, professors, dentists, judges, airline pilots and priests to be reassuringly aged to the point where their gnarled faces betoken a great deal of getting of the wisdom we think their callings require. My darling wife thinks that it is a consolation of the increasing grannyfication of her hair and face that it gives her still more credibility as a therapist.

Somehow, though, with IT matters, the more pubescent (or better still prepubescent) the face of the trouble-shooter who shimmers to his aid, the more relief a fogey feels. It is as though the way IT things work is a field of magic only the very young can understand—just as only pixies can understand pixie lore.

The Information Age pixies, the very young, are good at knowing how IT things work, but as I’ve been arguing here, it’s the thinking fogeys who know best (or who ought to learn how to know best) what to use the tools of the Information Age for.

From a traditional education and from traditional reading and traditional gallery-going and concert-going I have a smattering of knowledge of stimulating things, and so know enough to be able to give a search engine some intelligent commands as I send it off hunting and gathering. The intellectual loot it brings back to me seems wonderful.

Book-oriented for my first 55 years, thinking it essential to true reading to be holding a readable object (book, newspaper or journal) in my hands and to be able to listen to the swish of its turned pages, to know the roar of its ink-printed page and the smell of its paper, I now find myself getting as much pleasure from the screen as from the page. I am, loving it, part of the long-overdue decline and fall of the newspaper (now intelligence-insulting and trashy) as we’ve known it.

Here, greying and tweedy and sitting in my traditional-looking study furnished by traditional bookshelves and by a gently snoring traditional English springer spaniel asleep at my feet, I look like a traditional scholarly fogey of the 1950s save for the little 21st-century laptop on my lap. And now I find I am as easily engrossed by good things on a screen as by good things on a page. The aforementioned 75,000 words of dangerous ideas (like so much information, available online on screens but not yet in books) has engrossed me as much as Treasure Island did when I was a little boy and when a science-fiction book about an invention as wondrous as the internet would have seemed too far-fetched to be enjoyable. 

Ian Warden is a Canberra freelance writer and researcher.



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