Not too long ago, someone recently arrived from South Africa to Britain commented that the British post office was “holding back progress”. The person concerned was all for everything being done online. This got me thinking…
In Britain, there is still an operational post office and mail delivery system. Sadly, this is not the case in many African countries. I say ‘sadly’ as a number of people have commented to me about the pleasure they get when a letter or parcel (not a bill) pops through the door, in contrast to having another email to deal with. It therefore makes sense to do as much online, if there’s no operational post delivery service. However, many African countries are suffering from electricity shortages and outside of the major cities, access to computers and internet is still non-existent. Mobile or cellular phones, though, generally have good coverage but are only owned by a small group who can afford them.
Recent dealings with South Africa in particular are suggesting that the power shortages (load shedding as it’s called) is having a real impact on business – and many are turning to their phones (and Whatsapp) to communicate as email is a hassle to access on computer. Phones, however, are also reliant on electricity for charging and in many cases wi-fi drops out when there’s a power failure. I have noticed the South African National Archive catalogue is seldom available over weekends to search. Is this because the archive has a generator to keep things going during the week but not on weekends?
Poor connection is not just an African issues, over the past years it’s become noticeable in the UK too – internet connection is not as consistent as what it used to be and mobile phone companies have reduced services in some areas (notably on the London underground) to invest in other developments. Dips in power supply are also happening more frequently than in the past.
So, why are we trying to put everything online? Years ago, I gave up on electronic calendars/diaries. It took longer to load and find a free time for a meeting than digging in my bag for a paper diary and skimming it. I have also moved to a paper post-it type project planning system for keeping track of books I’m working on – computer updates deleting online post-its and slow connection etc again forced this move. And, how true it is, I’m not sure but a fair number of years ago it was already said that Russia was returning to the old tick-tick typewriter, as I refer to it, for recording sensitive information – online hacking was too much of a risk. Further, there was talk in the archive world of securing important documents on vinyl type surfaces as they could be read with a simple pin/sharp pointed prod running over the grooves and stored better than online systems which constantly had to be updated and material migrated to ensure continued access.
Yet, technology has its plus-points – I can communicate with people across the globe in ways I couldn’t do twenty years ago, we can share research, ideas and be more independent when it comes to international transactions. But as many say, there’s nothing that beats the personal connection when you can get it. And while I do enjoy peace, quiet and solitude as found in an archive or working at home without distractions, much of it on a computer, there is something to be said for interacting with people when giving a talk and doing the shopping or popping into the post office (as frustrating as the server can sometimes be). It’s a reality check – one of the things I love about going back to Africa and being out of the cities: a reminder of what is important in life. Turning to the phone and actually speaking with someone too, has allowed many a misunderstanding caused by email to be resolved. And I could go on about the benefits of non-online interactions over online.
As a teacher we were always advised to have contingencies in case the planned lesson didn’t turn out the way one expected. It was good advice on many an occasion. Experiencing how London came to a gridlock back in the day with the 7 July 2005 bombing and hearing of people having difficulties contacting each other in the USA on and after 11 September 2001 is sufficient evidence for me to keep paper and more traditional ways of communicating. On a more local level, just watch the frustration at the train exit or in the coffee shop when a person at the pay-point’s phone decides it needs to do its own thing rather than register the payment.
I really cannot see how making everything electronic is progress… and if that is progress, how do we justify it not being available to all? The wealth gap is growing as it is – is this indicative of progress? The comment coming from a fellow South African suggests to me an out-of-touchness with reality, and the masses (how many schools had to find non-electronic means of supporting students/pupils during the recent lockdowns – in all countries) and if that makes me a non-progressive, so be it.