My, how things change. Twentyfive years ago I was a penniless Theology student, living in a little college room and trying to write the Great English Novel on a portable typewriter in my spare time. If you’d told me then that the spring of 2009 would find me sitting outside a cafe in Charlotte Street, at the very heart of London’s medialand, looking cool as the fridge in half-inch-thick prescription shades and emailing on my BlackBerry... well, I wouldn’t have had the first idea what you were on about. Email? BlackBerry? London?
I sort of get London now, or at least I don’t get lost any more, as long as I stay in the West End, preferably within sight of the Telecom Tower or Centrepoint. And in truth my grasp of email and the BlackBerry to which I was kindly upgraded recently by my network provider is of a similar order. In other words, I can function, but the insouciance with which I do so is a sham. If I suddenly had to add a JPEG or make a conference call I’d be into the nearest phone shop like a rabbit down a hole, begging a member of staff to do it for me. It’s the technophobic equivalent of hailing a cab.
The people who work in those retail outlets do try, of course, to explain to me how I can take advantage of all the wizardry available through my tiny keypad, whereas cabbies do not generally pull out the A-Z and tell me I’d be better off legging it. But the trouble with all that patient instruction is that it involves an alien vocabulary, and assumes a basic knowledge of which I am innocent. It’s like explaining the dictionary to someone who doesn’t know their alphabet.
This week the Plain English Campaign has been in the news, following a survey, conducted by something called the Gadget Helpline, which identified all the technical terms, such as “digital TV” and “WiFi”, that most perplex the general public. The Campaign wants companies in the IT and associated businesses to cut the jargon and use language people understand. This seems a worthy enough sentiment, but I wonder if it misses the point.
I remember harrumphing mightily when I read that civil servants were being ordered not to use Latin phrases in memos, lest they exclude their stateeducated colleagues: civil servants, wherever they went to school, should be able to look up expressions they don’t understand, and if they don’t know what quid pro quo means, they jolly well ought to. But by the same token, if I could master the vocab of the Greek New Testament on starvation rations all those years ago, I really have no excuse now for not knowing what a “dongle” is. I’ve been told enough times, but it just doesn’t stick. Is it just because it bores me?
No, the answer runs deeper, in an irrational, morbid fear that if I were able to talk confidently about the workings of my phone and computer, and all the bits and pieces I can plug into them (but never do) to expand their already bewildering abilities, I would suddenly develop a straggly beard, a Black Country accent and a taste for heavy metal bands and games theory, and my trousers would start hanging as though they were on sideways.
There was a time when only someone who couldn’t afford a chauffeur knew how the car worked. A century and a half before that, spelling correctly was only for people in trade; gentlemen had secretaries. It has always been a bit naff to know stuff that’s practically useful. Classicists, and even theologians at university, still look down on the engineers and physicists in their midst for the same reason.
Yes, snobbery is a subtle, multi-faceted beast, but it really won’t do, and it’s just pathetic to demand that the purveyors of all the boxes of tricks on which we now rely should abandon their lexicon because we can’t be bothered to learn it. So if you happen to see me next week, sitting in Charlotte Street with my BlackBerry, I might well be studying the manual, making notes.
And if you’re trying to get to Clapham or Hampstead, I might even have worked out how to call up the journey planner thing from the net and get it on to the screen. But don’t expect me to give you directions from memory. I mean, do I look like a cab driver?