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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 48, November 22, 2014

Technology, Life, and Civilisation

Saturday 22 November 2014

by N.V.K. Murthy

Sometimes I wonder at the changes that science and technology have made in my own life spanning nine decades. I was brought up in a British cantonment town in colonial India. My first memory goes back to the days when we had storm lanterns that used kerosene. I remember the daily chore that my mother had of cleaning three or four such lanterns, filling them with kerosene, and lighting them at dusk. Also, at this time in India, water was mainly drawn from wells, because piped water was available only in some areas. The town did not have a sewage system. The night soil was still collected and disposed by a scavenger who visited homes during the early morning hours.

The first “new thing” I remember was the day when my father came home with what he called a “petromax lamp”. This was a variation of the storm lantern that we used where a long wick which coiled in the kerosene reservoir at the bottom was screwed into a small slit covered by glass. When lit this gave a steady glow around the lantern. The new petromax was slightly larger in size than the storm lantern, and contained a kerosene pump at the bottom. When fully pumped, kerosene vapours would rise into a silk mantle that was tied to the top of the lamp. To initiate the process we had to dip cotton-covered iron tongs into kerosene and put it near the silk mantle. Then we pumped the lamp. After some time the mantle would catch fire and start glowing brightly. This emitted much more light than the humble lantern. That was a great day in our lives. Just one such lamp which hung in the living room seemed to light up the entire room.

The next “new thing” in lighting happened when I was in middle school—electricity appeared on the scene.

Another new technology change came into our home when my father bought a gramo-phone. This was a device with a disc that would revolve when a spring was wound by hand, and a needle was carefully lowered to the revolving disc, creating a sound that emerged from a megaphone attached to the machine. I had the task of winding up the spring every now and then, while my father took charge of the records and the needle. Listening to beautiful music in the comfort of one’s own home was quite an experience!

My father was an employee in the Imperial Postal Service and had learned the technique of signalling by Morse code for telegrams. Signals tapped on a metal contraption were transferred by wire to places far away. A similar device was used to receive the signals which were then transcribed into English and distributed to people to whom these telegrams were sent. This was indeed no less than magic for us children.

By the time my father retired and took us to Mysore, I had graduated into high school. I was an avid reader of books and the school I attended had a good collection of English fiction. While reading I often marvelled at how books could transform the reader to a whole new atmosphere as they told stories about strange lands and people.

When I was a child of five or six years, my father took us to see a movie. These were silent pictures projected on a screen in a big hall and a small live orchestra played in the pit while the figures moved on the screen. In between the moving pictures, a card with a printed storyline appeared so we connected the text with the images and followed the story. Then by the time I was in high school talking movies came into town and that was a great miracle in our lives!

My father bought a bicycle and I soon mastered the art of using it. There were only a few cars in the city, and these were owned by the rich folks in our town. I was fascinated by these vehicles. When I started studying physics and chemistry, I learned about the internal combustion engine. Over time, of course, more changes came in—the number of automobiles on the road slowly increased, and there was a regular sewage system in our city.

We were also familiar with the railway because that is how we frequently travelled between cities. I learned how the steam engine was invented in England and thus began the industrial revolution.

In the days before my time, communication was mostly by word-of-mouth. Even as late as the mid-nineteenth century when books were available, and letters were exchanged, sociologists pointed out that communication in India continued to be mainly by word-of-mouth.

By a strange coincidence I ended up as a communicator. First I was a teacher of journalism. Then I went into the field of film journalism and was a producer of newsreels for over a decade. The effect of communication, not by written books, but by an audio visual medium like cinema, was a revolutionary experience. The different effects of various media became the study of scholars like Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian academic. McLuhan pointed out a fundamental difference between communication by written word in a language and communication using images and sounds. When you read a book in any language you scan the letters on each page with your eyes, put letters together in your mind to form words, and put words together to form a sentence. This orderly procedure involves the faculty of reasoning. So while reading you are also thinking. When it comes to the audio visual medium, you feel the experience simultaneously through your eyes and ears. This is almost like the experience of our ancestral savages during the times when there was no written language. The reaction was instantaneous and emotional.

Many sociologists agree that this is one of the drawbacks of the modern forms of communi-cation which science and technology have brought about. But it had its compensation. Before the advent of audio-visual media and computers and internet, the homo-sapiens’ reasoning power and the power to make decisions from prior experiences had to rely entirely on memory. Today, even an elementary school kid can open up a browser, use a search engine and get information about almost anything under the sun.

In my own life I am enormously thankful to modern gizmos and gadgets like audio books and the internet. My vision has deteriorated so that I can no longer read. But this does not prevent me from listening to newspapers, magazines, and books and keeping in touch with what’s happening in the world today. When I don’t recall the exact date of an event, all I have to do is ask my children or grandchildren to “google it”. In a trice they go their laptops or i-pads or even smart phones, and give me the answer.

What do all these changes mean? I was listening the other day to Henry David Kissinger’s latest book, The World Order. In his final conclusion he refers to the philosophical differentiation between information, knowledge and wisdom. He points out that being very well informed does not make a man civilised. This information has to be filtered into knowledge. But not even knowledge is sufficient to make far-reaching decisions. From knowledge we have to cull out wisdom before taking action. It is only thus that civilisation can progress and perhaps a new world order established where everyone’s life, liberty and the right to pursuit of happiness is ensured.

The author, now retired, was the First Registrar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Subsequently he functioned for sometime as the Director of the Film and TV Institute of India, Pune. Later he was appointed the Director of the Nehru Centre, Mumbai.