Audience of one

My erstwhile physician shared with me this morning an article from The Times to which he subscribes.

The Times is a British daily national newspaper based in London. It began in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal Register, adopting its current name on 1 January 1788. The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times (founded in 1821) are published by Times Media, since 1981 a subsidiary of News UK, in turn wholly owned by News Corp.

The article was about the proliferation and popularity of podcasts.

A podcast is a program made available in digital format for download over the Internet. A podcast series usually features one or more recurring hosts engaged in a discussion about a particular topic or current event. Discussion and content within a podcast can range from carefully scripted to completely improvised. Podcasts combine elaborate and artistic sound production with thematic concerns ranging from scientific research to slice-of-life journalism. Many podcast series provide an associated website with links and show notes, guest biographies, transcripts, additional resources, commentary, and occasionally a community forum dedicated to discussing the show’s content.

More significantly to me the article suggested the decline of the value (or at least the vogue) of the written word. I immediately thought remorsefully of Jane Austen. But my secondary – and no doubt more cogent awakening – was that writing is for me a mandatory form of expression. It is a very personal preoccupation not merely a product of consumption or learning. I have been writing almost every day since I was 14 years old when I began my first diary at boarding school.  The handwritten exercise subsequently changed to a documentary model (on my mother’s old portable Smith Corona typewriter) which I continued throughout my undergraduate studies, graduate studies and professional career. Before I destroyed all that I had written (part of the downsizing experience) I had put much of the typewritten collection in a custom-made leather bound binder on which there was for added distinction a goldleaf impression of my full name. Lately I have adopted the current computer vernacular of blogs and writing platforms (basically the same old stuff saved in cyberspace). In every instance however there has been an audience of one; namely, me.  Never have I sought to extract any commercial benefit from my undertakings not only because I doubt its retail viability but also because quite frankly I could care less.  No matter the popularity or intrigue of what I say, the necessity to write lingers like an appetite. As compelling as it is, writing is always for me a desire not an obligation (though I jokingly quip at times that there is the spiritual advantage of catharsis or some other pretended intellectual improvement).

My argument with The Times article is not with the method or device used for the transmission of information and knowledge; rather, I object to the detraction of the pure value of the written word.  To speak plainly, I like words.  Certainly I like sounds but I predominantly limit that attraction to music and singing. As for the media by which people abstract information and ideas (such celebrated podcasts as Ted Talk), I observe only that the focus thereof is upon the intelligence not the language by which it is communicated.

TED Conferences, LLC (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is an American-Canadian non-profit media organization that posts international talks online for free distribution under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”. It was founded by Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks in February 1984 as a technology conference, in which Mickey Schulhof gave a demo of the compact disc that was invented in October 1982. It has been held annually since 1990. It covers almost all topics—from science to business to global issues—in more than 100 languages. As of June 2015, more than 13,000 TEDx events (events run by individuals to undertake to honour the TED principles) have been held in at least 150 countries

For me language is more than obfuscation or a collection of uninteresting (even verbose) words. Language is identity and flavour.  I have as much appreciation of the written word of the poorly educated as I do of the well educated because in each instance the written word captures the culture and nutrition of inner expression. And you have to see it in writing, not merely listen to it being spoken. I attribute this seeming limitation to the fact that I am dyslexic and therefore require time to absorb what is happening.

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding). Also called a reading disability, dyslexia is a result of individual differences in areas of the brain that process language.

Speaking as we are of public broadcasting I recall clearly my initiation to television.  Neighbours (who by the way lived nearby then Vice-President Richard Nixon) invited us to see their new television.  It was housed in a huge cabinet.  It was a colour television with the introductory peacock.

Then next time I recall seeing a television was when I was a Prefect at St. Andrew’s College intent upon finding some lower school culprit lounging in the Common Room.

Otherwise television has never been an activity of mine.  The modern wall-hung televisions have been replaced by computers, iPads and IPhones.  Meanwhile I admit that hard copies of books may be on the wane – replaced by downloaded books on one’s computer – but the allure of the written word continues.  I have regularly told my erstwhile physician that I am reading the 5-volume (1,500 pages each) History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay.  I don’t believe half of what Macaulay says but I adore the way he says it! If I were to listen to the book being read, it would not have the same benefit or satisfaction. Too often I believe people escape the advantage of the written word by succumbing to the convenience of believing they are getting the same effect through listening. That to me is like saying food is tasty without eating it.

And this business about AI overtaking the value of the written word is utterly preposterous.  It is no more evident or imperative than imagining that the written word came from God on a stone tablet.  The creation of valuable and accurate literature is only as successful as the people behind it whether disguised by so-called Artificial Intelligence or the dramatic smokescreen in The Wizard of Oz. And in every case there persists the need to examine and digest what is being said.

At its simplest form, artificial intelligence is a field, which combines computer science and robust datasets, to enable problem-solving. It also encompasses sub-fields of machine learning and deep learning, which are frequently mentioned in conjunction with artificial intelligence.