Reflections

You cling to the past at your peril

By Nick Twinamatsiko:

About a year ago, a certain boy with an unusual ability to mentally execute mathematical processes was featured in a vernacular television programme, Vumbula. Callers would give him any two figures, say 10917 and 13257, and within seconds, he would mention the product. Sophisticated people must have called him a savant, while simple villagers may have viewed him as a boy in possession of magic or possessed by spirits. He was a miserable fellow who probably lived on half-a-meal a day and the presenter had travelled to some forsaken village to meet him. Time was when this young man's 'genius' or 'magic', or whatever you call it, could have made him rich, but in an age of calculators and computers, who needs such talent? You could say that his misfortune was that of being born after his time, or rather of being born with obsolete abilities.

As time goes by, changes occur, and some abilities and areas/systems of knowledge are rendered irrelevant by those changes. The people that studied Mathematics in the 80s and earlier decades used a metric system that entailed inches, feet, yards, ounces, cups, stones, and so forth. But those of us that joined high school in the 90s used centimeters, meters, kilometers, grams, kilograms, and so forth. The former metric system, and all the knowledge pertinent to conversion between the units of the system, had become obsolete – at least as far as academic work was concerned.

Similarly, while, in my earlier high school years, one was 'lost' in Mathematics classes if they didn't have Logarithm tables, a typical mathematics student in today's high schools will probably get 'lost' if you ask him about Logarithm tables. As calculators have become commonplace, they have condemned Logarithm Tables to the dustbins of history. Undoubtedly, some schools still have those Tables in their Libraries, but it seems they would be well-advised to sell them to museums. They will simply never regain their relevance in Mathematics Classes. They now belong together with ounces and stones and gallons. All the mental effort we expended to master the use of Logarithm Tables was apparently in vain!  If today's examination candidate insisted on using Logarithm Tables, he wouldn't be stopped, but it's doubtful he would complete, since the questions are set on the assumption that candidates will use the faster calculators. You cling to the past at your peril!

My university classmates and I would perhaps not have taken seriously some of the things we took seriously in our Engineering Drawing and Structural Analysis classes, if we had realized that software like AUTOCAD and PROKON would emerge and do for us many of the things that our lecturers made it seem we had to do mentally and manually.  Any Engineer that eschews the software and tries to analyze manually will find himself lagging behind the competition, and losing clients. You cling to the past at your peril!

In my post-university years, I dabbled at publishing and got to know many fellows who eke a living by running printing presses. It seems to me that their skills with the presses are becoming obsolete, and their livelihoods are getting threatened, as online publishing eclipses paper publishing. They should take some classes in web design, if they can, or they might soon find that they can't get enough clients to make ends meet. You cling to the past at your peril!

As a writer, I have always looked to the Victorian novelists and Elizabethan poets for inspiration and example. But I have lately realized that matching the abilities of Dickens, or the profundity of Dostoevsky, won't necessarily endear my work to the modern reader. The modern reader doesn't have a long attention span, or a deep interest in material with intellectual pretensions, and the modern writer must adjust his craft accordingly. It has been suggested that authors should convert their books into tweets if they want them read! It might be better still to abandon the novel form altogether, and try writing movie scripts instead! Instead of learning from the novels of Dostoevsky, I should, it seems, be learning from the telenovellas! One cannot assume that modern audiences are similar to Victorian audiences and not pay a hefty price for the mistaken assumption. You cling to the past at your peril!

We must watch out for the changes of the times and respond to them, or we risk ending up like the young man who can multiply 10917 and 13257 in a second, but cannot afford a proper meal. You cling to the past at your peril!

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