Electronic revolution founders in the fine print

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The Independent Online
'THEY call it an electronic revolution,' said the old man opposite me in the train. 'Bah, humbug]'

It was a typical evening in the train. Me trying to read a book. Girl diagonally opposite, looking through her handbag for her ticket. Man next to me, fast asleep dreaming about biffing his boss on the nose - judging from the little noises he was making. And the old man opposite, sounding off about the electronic revolution. I looked around desperately for help. But it was no use. The old man caught my eye. He waved a magnifying glass at me.

'This is what you need,' he said.

I was trapped.

'How do you mean?' I said. 'Look,' he said, 'we were promised when computers and word processors and PCs came in that it would all be different. That we would read it all on a screen from now on. When did you last read something on a screen?'

I thought back. 'Well, I started watching a Czech film on TV the other night, and that was subtitled, so I was reading that - of course, you couldn't really make all the subtitles out, because the TV screen is never quite big enough, is it? But I'd rather have that than have the film dubbed, because . . .'

'Yes, yes, yes,' he said impatiently. But I don't mean that sort of screen. I mean a VDU, a visual display unit. How much do you actually read on that sort of a screen?'

'Very little. The times of trains on the station. Departure boards at airports. Er, that's it, I think.'

'Not much for an electronic revolution, is it,' he said, somewhat smugly. 'And all them computer johnnies who are so into electronics - what are they doing all around us on the train? Reading computer magazines, that's what] Reading bits of paper joined together with glue, printed with words. Why aren't they getting magazines on little screens?'

The ticket collector arrived. The woman found her ticket. We gave ours to the inspector.

'If this really was an electronic revolution,' said the man, 'we wouldn't be giving the ticket collector bits of paper and cardboard to look at, and he wouldn't be putting it in a little printer, and printing something on it with ink, and giving it back to us. Electronic revolution? Bah, humbug]'

'Where does the magnifying glass come into it?'

'Well, the result of the electronic revolution seems to be that more and more is being written on paper, not less, and there's so much stuff being forced into the available space that it's being printed smaller and smaller, so you increasingly need a magnifying glass. Try to read this.'

He produced from his shopping a small bag. From the bag he produced a small plastic square. It was a CD cover. He opened the CD cover and took out the inlay. He spread out the inlay and handed it to me.

'Read that,' he said.

I squinted at the bit of paper.

'Umm, 'Saucy Songs from the Twenties and Thirties,' I read slowly.

'Oops, Sorry, wrong CD,' he said hastily and gave me another inlay.

' 'Duke Ellington: The Great Years 1937-1945',' I said.

'Good,' he said. 'But rather easy. That's just the title, after all. Now try the text.'

'Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in . . .'

I couldn't read the date.

'Can't read the date?' he said victoriously. 'Here, try a magnifying glass . . .'

It then occurred to me that I had been finding things harder to read. Instructions on packets. Directions for taking tablets. Small print in papers, BBC contracts. Anything legal. Almost everything in the Radio Times . . .

'We're just getting older,' I said. 'Eyesight failing. Nothing else is changing.'

'I can still read the back of LPs,' he said. 'No problem, it's CDs that are the trouble. They ought to sell a magnifying glass with CDs. But I'll tell you what the real trouble is.'

'Tell me.'

'The greatest revolution in all this electronic business is the dislocation of writing from reading,' he said. 'When you write on a piece of paper, the writing appears exactly where you place it. The ink comes out of the pen you are holding. But when you input something to a VDU, you type the letters here on a keyboard and you see the letters come up there, somewhere quite different, on a screen.

'It is the first time in history that what we are writing appears in a different place from where we are writing it. The psychological effect is devastating.'

The conversation was starting to get interesting.

'Go on,' I said.

Alas, if only the Independent were printed smaller I could have brought you the fascinating things he said next.