Tuesday, June 18, 2024

My information technology history | The Guardian Nigeria News – Nigeria and World News — Opinion – Guardian Nigeria


Each one of us has what I would call an IT history, the story of his or her engagement with the information technology that has so much shaped our lives in recent decades.
About five years ago, I was explaining to a student friend, Victor Uduah, how difficult it had been in the 1970s – or how difficult it seemed in retrospect – to produce multiple copies of a document. The normal practice in offices and schools in Nigeria, as elsewhere, was that, first, someone sitting at an antiquated kind of machine known as a typewriter had to type text on a special kind of paper known as a stencil, and corrections were effected with a pink-coloured fluid suggestive of the magic potions of ancient legend. The stencil was then fitted around the drum of a large contraption known as a duplicating machine, into which ink was squeezed from a large tube; and this, dispersed around the inside of the drum, filled the indentations on the stencil formed by the typing. Duplicating paper was placed on a tray under the drum, a handle was turned, and printed copies began to appear on the other side of the drum. It was an often messy operation, and expensive enough, since the stencils and the ink were consumables. It was less expensive than photocopying, which began to be known in Nigeria around 1980; but to photocopy one page in a commercial establishment cost 30k, so that to make one copy of a 200-page document cost N60, which was then quite an intimidating sum, one-tenth of a lecturer’s monthly salary.
Victor, who was in his mid-twenties, naturally listened to my story in astonishment. You have to be twice his age or more to remember those duplicating days. I went on to tell Victor that in my early childhood in the 1940s I could consider myself to be in the van of progress because I learned to use a typewriter. Although my parents could not afford to buy one, a family friend lent us one so that my elder sister, who was learning to type at school, could practise at home. I thus learned as well.
Later at university I daringly typed my essays, and my lecturers had no objection. What they did object to was that if your essays were produced by hand, as all my fellow students’ essays were, you must not use a Biro pen, but a ‘fountain’ pen. This once vital object has also disappeared from our world, and I have also explained its functioning to an incredulous Victor.
Some older people in Nigeria may remember it, and my old retired friend Titus Madu in fact still uses one – to make notes on sermons in church on a Sunday morning, for example. Even the word ‘Biro’ (named after its Czech inventor) sounds somewhat strange to Victor and his ilk because the only kind of pen they know is a Biro pen.
In the 1990s the typewriter was superseded by the personal computer and the landline phone by the mobile phone. By now becoming conservative, I did not take immediately to either of them. But in the Nigeria of the early 2000s one could not ignore them, and when I acquired my first PC, it was with joy that I discovered what a blessing this was to anyone engaged in any kind of creative writing: corrections could so easily be effected, text could be shifted around, and so on. I became an Internet addict and an e-mailing addict in particular, and through a website called ‘Friends Reunited’ re-established contact with primary-school friends whom I had not seen for fifty years.
In the era of later attractions such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and so on, I continue to regard the arrival of e-mailing as a high point of civilization from which we have fallen away. Though I have now become also a WhatsApp addict, I find that the creativity that I want to put into texting is limited by the space available, by the size of the phone screen, and so on. I have the sense, however, that the Victors of today consider us e-mailers to be rather out-of-date. They no longer believe in the superiority of the written word – over visual images, for example.
It is remarkable how, within a couple of decades, the whole world has been caught up inescapably in the IT revolution. Life is barely imaginable without our laptops and our smartphones. Nevertheless, our humanity must rise above them. They are not our gods. Yet they demand so much from us. Thus in a day many of us receive thirty or fifty or a hundred texts on our phones, some of them containing long essays or video clips, which we may or may not want to read or view. I often say (with some obvious exaggeration) that you have to read or view texts before you can decide whether or not you want to read or view them (if not, you may wish to delete them, but this also takes time). More than ever, more than was the case even a few decades ago, IT thus confronts man with crucial questions concerning time and his use of it I also frequently say that, although science and technology have given us all these wonders, they still have not given us more than twenty-four hours in one day.
The laptop or the smartphone constantly frustrates or disappoints us. So often you click and nothing happens, or you have to wait for a command to be carried out and can exercise no control over the time involved; you are helpless, you are at the mercy of the technology. The big Nigerian English word so often uttered in such a situation is ‘Network!’, uttered with a sigh or a growl, but without hope of a remedy.
I, being less patient, sometimes react more violently. ‘I’m going to throw this phone out of the window!’ I exclaim. Victor, thinking I mean it, says: ‘But Prof, if you do that the phone will break.’ My answer: ‘Exactly’. But I spare the phone.
Professor Jowitt, FNAL, is a lecturer in the Department of English, University of Jos.

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