Saturday, 3 November 2012

Stormy Weather

For the past few days, in large swathes of this city, the 3G cellphone network run by one of the biggest operators has been malfunctioning. Your phone will ring but, when you answer, you can't hear a thing. When this happens it is at first obviously perplexing, soon becomes understandably irritating and, in the end, inexplicably embarrassing. The bloke in the phone shop is of the opinion that it might take them a week to fix it, which is a 'disaster' for at least one of my acquaintances whose arrangements are dependent on phone calls rather than emails or txt mssgs.

The CEO of the network was on this morning's TV news - not, ironically, to talk about the malfunction, but promoting the imminent launch of the latest, more advanced 4G phone technology. In fact he didn't mention our little problem and I had to resist the urge to shout at the telly in outrage. But this isn't about to turn into a luddite, flat-earthist rant about the failings of communications technology which, although imperfect, is a lot better than what we had before.

At the beginning of October I happened to be standing beside a small oak tree which boasted a brass plaque declaring that it had been planted in memory of 250,000 trees that were lost in London during four hours of exceptionally stormy weather on 16th October 1987. The north of England was unaffected (as I recall) but the national news media (based in London) brought us the images and statistics of destruction swiftly and comprehensively. I have to admit that, from a distance of 200 miles, I found it difficult to empathise fully with the distress of those closely affected - despite the best efforts of the press to convey the severity of the situation.

Twenty five years later the news media are full of images and stories concerning Sandie, the much bigger storm that has caused extensive damage, disruption and loss of life in and around New York - another place seething with news teams. Again it's not in my back yard but this time I found it easier to empathise with the victims. Why? Because of cellphone coverage. Professional reportage has now been augmented by amateur video recordings which, with their unscripted soundtracks (mostly, in this case, comprising the exclamation "Oh my God!") lend a cinema vérité piquancy which resonates with ordinary, everyday experience.
There are now more cellphones than there are humans on the planet (I can't vouch for this statistic but I am inclined to accept it given that I have personally owned at least a dozen) which benefits another aspect of news reporting: there is more coverage and exposure of "obscure" events. The 'Arab Spring' is the most obvious example of how we are now able to get news that, just twenty five years ago, would not have come to our attention as immediately, as prolifically or with quite the same, unfiltered impact.
Sandie is the latest example. The storm had previously wreaked havoc and devastation on Caribbean islands but coverage of that was incidental to the New York story: Caribbean islands, besides hosting fewer commercial news teams, also have a miniscule influence on the world's economy. Despite this we did get some news thanks to the cellphone. Irritating and embarrassing it may be, but the cellphone is lifting us out of the stone-age of information dissemination.

As a postscript, an experiment in some remote Ethiopian villages has fascinating repercussions. Children, illiterate and with no knowledge of the English language, were given tablet computers. Neither the tablets nor the programmes were modified and no instruction was offered. The speed with which they subsequently learnt to use the computers was astonishing - to the extent that it calls into question the comparable efficacy of the traditional classroom/teacher/group-of-pupils model.

It's annoying when it goes wrong but today's technology compensates with a bonus: freedom of information.

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