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Sunday, 16 August 2009
When the Signals Don't Get Through
(Nothing to do with the subject, but I wish I had seen this in a flier for The London Review of Booksbefore posting my piece on Lies, Damned Lies and My Comments on Your Blog, this quote from John Mason Brown: To many people criticism must seem like an attempt to tattoo soap bubbles. And this one from C.G. Lightenburg: A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to peer out.)
Recently, Doreen, who is not only my wife, but also the chief communications officer for the whole extended family, found herself lumbered (I think is the appropriate word) with the responsibility for agreeing the details with other close family members for a long weekend we were planning to spend with them. Our daughter and son-in-law had also been invited along, so it was a three-way task to set it all up. Because we all (they all!) lead very busy lives, the arranging was done by text. At some point our daughter suggested a modification to the arrangements, from which point it all went pear-shaped.
Obviously, I am not going into all the details or lay blame, if only because I think that actually, no one was to blame - unless it be he who invented texting in the first place!Certainly, I have no doubt but that the devil was in the texting. The messages conveyed adequately enough what each was thinking, but not what they felt about the suggestions and counter-suggestions. This, surely, is in the nature of text messaging, which on th evidence of this experience needs to be used with some caution. I understand that it came into being when engineers working to establish networks in the early days hit upon the idea of using the spare capacity in the system to communicate with each other. It woud have been fine for such use, is fine for short, factual communications, but cannot handle the complexities of human emotions.
Recently we had a spot of boiler trouble. At intervals of increasing frequency there would come a noise like an express training coming towards us out of a long tunnel and then hitting the platform, at which point hot water would cascade freely from the overflow over the conservatory below.
We have a maintenance contract with one of the Utility companies. I have to say I was impressed by their efforts on our behalf. They came almost daily over a long period of time, making changes to this or that, replacing something else, eventually reduced to trying things by trial and error. At one point the engineer thought new pipes from the control centre to the tank in the attic might help, as the existing ones meandered from past modifivcations to the system. He laso thought that the vent pipe, which was of a narrower bore than the others should be the same size. I had for some time thought the pipe work a little on the crazy side, so readily agreed. And a MagnaClean, he said to take the sludge out of the system... Okay, I said These changes though, were enhancement not repairs, so had to be paid for. We stumped up, he came and very efficiently did all the work agreed, and before he had collected up his tools, the train came out of the tunnel once more.
He brought in the lead engineer, who thought a self-ventinc valve to replace the manuel one in the airing cupboard and maybe the boiler needed a new P.C.B. It did. It has worked perfectly since. He explained: the boiler wasn't switching off because the signl wasn't coming through from the P.C.B.
It's not all bad, of course. We now have an enhanced system, though in actual fact, this consists in the main of a MagnaClean, looking something like a cross between a bunion and a jar of coffee protruding from the boiler's return pipe just above the microwave - a space once reserved for trays, but now not available to us. It may be enhancing the system but it sure aint enhancing the kitchen.
Back to the business of texting. It occurs to me to wonder whether the degree to which we have come to rely on these very convenient short messages has not imparied to some extent our abilty to read the signals that more extended language forms usually provide. We do not provide the redundancy of language which often acts as the carrier. We do not think about them when we write and so do not look for them when we read. Our politicians, for example, are for ever complaining that their message is not getting through. Well, maybe at times it doesn't deserve to, and at other times the complaint is an excuse, but often it is patently obvious that, for good or ill, they are at least correct in that: the message is not getting through.The hysteria in The States over President Obama's Health plans - and the ludicrous way in which the British NHS has become embroiled in it is a case in point.