With so many people tweeting before they think, the telegraph can teach us some valuable lessons

A telegraph cable transmitted information at only eight words a minute, which helped avoid the sort of mindless communication we see so much today

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After listening to my take on the Middle East – and my usual rant about the internet – the pupils of St Brendan’s College in Killarney in Ireland have given me a most appropriate gift: a three-and-a-half-inch chunk of the telegraph cable that Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Eastern laid 147 years ago across the floor of the Atlantic from Valentia Island – in what was then the UK – to Heart’s Content at Trinity Bay in Newfoundland.

A cross-section of my bit of cable shows the golden copper core that carried the signals, surrounded by gutta-percha – the latex sap of Malaysian trees used for insulation – a jute wrapping round it, and a binding of steel wire.

The first message sent through the inches of cable that now stand on my desk – originally laid on the ocean bed, I should add, by a Co Wicklow sea captain called Robert Halpin, and mounted now on a piece of Valentia slate – was from an editorial on the telegraph in The Times. “It is a great work,” quoth the old Thunderer with imperial conviction, “a glory to our age and nation, and the men who have achieved it deserve to be honoured among the benefactors of their race. Treaty of peace signed between Prussia and Austria.”

I will leave readers to find out why that particular peace laid the ghostly framework of a future Germany, but the cable was also used to convey news of the Great Irish Famine, the 1916 Easter Rising and, of course, the Anglo-Irish Treaty which sundered 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties from a kingdom as well as an empire.

But go back to that Times editorial for a moment. A bit over the top these days, perhaps, but a really strong opening sentence, confident – four verbs – and the use of “work”, “glory”, “age”, “nation” and “honour”. You won’t find that in cyberspace, even if the last sentence about the Prussian-Austrian peace leaves out – headline-style – the key words “has been”.

 

And researching in my files last week, I came across a 1973 opinion column in the Observer Magazine by John Grigg, whose father was himself a Times correspondent before becoming a member of Churchill’s government, whom I met when he (Grigg junior) was writing Volume VI of The Times’ official history. Dead now these past 13 years, Grigg was  – in those pre-email days  – inveighing against the effect of television on literacy, and “the even deadlier influence of the telephone”. We all, wrote Grigg, tend “to waffle on the telephone, whereas we are relatively terse and businesslike on paper”.

Hear hear, say I. Grigg was promoting the good old “real” paper letter, which “encouraged people to write and so improved literacy”. But “the effect of telephone calls on our nerves and thought-processes,” he added, “is certainly very large and very bad.” And this, I suspect, is exactly what he would now say about email, SMS texting, Facebook or tweeting.

In one sense, cyberspace is an extension of the phone rather than the letter. And Grigg’s fear of the television would merge into the same concern – because both involve screens: and thus the old problem of “attention deficit disorder”. I’m against such phrases, but a Christmas present of Canadian writer Michael Harris’s first-class The End of Absence convinced me that it might have its uses. Harris suspects (correctly) that technology uses us as much as we use it, and writes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace: “I get through two pages and then stop to check my email – and down the memory hole I go.” And the memory hole is without any restraints. Thus email is also hate-mail, which we used to call poison pen letters.

As Alain de Botton’s Philosopher’s Mail – a web-based newspaper with all the old-fashioned principles of literacy – points out, “the ability to post comments at the end of online news stories has revealed something unusual about our fellow citizens: even though most of them seem really quite nice and very polite when we meet them… they are” – when commenting online – “very different: jealous, furious, vindictive, heartless, obsessive, unforgiving and a little short of insane.”

The problem, I still believe, is that this insanity comes from the ability – and thus the need – to express oneself in extremes, which naturally leads to irrationality, a mindless reflex that attracts the demented soul. Look at the effect of cyberspace on would-be Islamist fighters (or murderers). Or on two Hollywood executives who made racist remarks in emails about Obama last month. The comments, one of them admitted later, were meant to be funny but “in the cold light of day, they are… thoughtless and insensitive… written in haste without much thought or sensitivity”.

Exactly. No time for thought. No time for reflection. Much haste. And just look how French engineer Jordi Mir chose to excuse himself after posting his video of the cold-blooded Paris murder of the policeman Ahmed Merabet close to the Charlie Hebdo offices. He posted the video on Facebook out of fear, he said, and from a “stupid reflex” – there we go again – fostered by years on social media. “I was completely panicked. I was alone in my flat. I put the video on Facebook. That was my error.” That was his best explanation. He was, he said, “very sorry” he had offended Merabet’s family by putting out the video.

But the damage was done. The “reflex” had taken place. Thoughtless and insensitive, as the Hollywood executive said. A little short of insane. And down the memory hole went Jordi Mir. The technology had an effect on the thought processes, as Grigg might have said. But that’s also the joy of my gift from the pupils of St Brendan’s College. For through that chunk of cable on my desk, news and opinion could be transmitted at only eight words a minute. It gave you time to reflect on words like glory and honour. It gave you time to think.

 

A better statement of Hebdo’s defiance

Instead of yet more childish cartoons of the Prophet, couldn’t the post-massacre Charlie Hebdo have carried the following on its front page, a song of joy from the Middle East that would unsettle many an Islamist mind?

If you think I’m going to quit drinking in the season of flowers, I deny it

Where is the musician? So that the results of all my piety and learning /Can be put to the sound of the harp and the reed.

I’m bored by the rumbling of religious schools. Just for a while, I’d like to be in the service of my beloved and of wine.

I’m not scared of getting a bad record, because on the Day of Judgement

With the grace and kindness of God I’ll be forgiven a hundred sins.

The translation is from a friend. The Persian poet, in the 14th century, no less, was Hafez of Shiraz. And  he was, of course, a Muslim.