MADUKU: NO LONGER LITERATE ENOUGH
THE computer/internet revolution that has gripped the world today is bad news to some people. Do I hear you curse them as enemy of progress? Please don't start invoking Holy Ghost fire to consume those who feel this way. They are not witches and wizards whose evil powers can be neutralized only by serious dry fasting and praying. Also, don't start jumping into conclusion about their occupation. They are not manufacturers of typewriters, duplicating machines, carbon papers, ribbons, stencils or post office workers whom computers have thrown out of business. They are not victims of internet fraud either. Rather, they are educated elderly men and women whose grouse is against the way computers and the internet is gradually making them to look like illiterates!
Take, as an example, the case of a relation who visited me during the last public holidays. She was accompanied by her teenage son. As we sat in the parlour conversing, the son would fondly hold her hand or rest his head on her lap. When this was becoming too frequent, she shouted at him at a stage to stop behaving like a baby. When I told her that he was still a baby at heart, she asked me a question that I thought was unrelated to the subject we were talking about. She drew this / symbol on the air and asked me what it was called in English. As I did not quite get her, she brought out a piece of paper and ball pen and repeated it on the paper. She held her breath as if my answer means life or death to her. After pondering over her tenseness for a few seconds without guessing a clue, I told her what I believe was the truth – I told her what she had written on the paper was a stroke.
Could you believe, she replied greatly relieved, that her son, who is still behaving like a baby, has been admonishing her for calling that symbol a stroke? My visitor was a teacher in a secondary school and class where the son was also a pupil. She went on to tell me that her son has been telling her that he was always embarrassed whenever she called that symbol a stroke before his mates. When I inquired from her what the son said the symbol was called, she replied: slash or to be more precise, forward slash. No wonder! I told her when I learnt the boy was also in a computer class.
Another name it was called in those days which she also knew was oblique. We repeated the two words with nostalgia. Though I was over 10 years older than her, we felt we belong to the same age group – a group that was about to be endangered by the computer/internet generation of today. I looked at the son but he was no longer listening - he was already asleep on the carpet! The son, she joked, would have disowned her outright if she had used the latter which sounded even more archaic. But our reminiscence of the past did not stop me from telling her what I again believe was another truth.
Since I myself was striving to tag along the computer generation, I advised my visitor that as a younger person and a teacher for that matter, she has no alternative for not being computer literate. Every forward looking person and organisation, I informed her, is now embracing the computer/internet. I gave the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as an example. That organisation which is supposed to guard against the bastardization of the English language, I revealed to her, uses forward slash instead of stroke or oblique nowadays. I knew she herself had once enrolled in a computer training centre about seven years ago so I wondered aloud why she was not familiar with the new name for stroke.
My visitor had then confessed that she could not continue her computer class beyond one week. On asking why she discontinued so early, she gave me several reasons ranging from time, money and lastly the complexity of everything computer. The first two days, she told me, her class was taught the history of computers which she still remembers somewhat proudly. The next two days, it was types of computers, their parts and accessories which she also enjoyed. It was on the fifth day when they were each given a computer to practise on that her disenchantment started. Apart from the mumble jumble of computer language and icons, she thought the mouse was the most difficult thing to control in the world. According to her, it was a thousand times more rascally than any pupil!
Ironically, my visitor's name was Patience and I told her that had she been patient with the mouse for a few more days, she would have found it a very faithful urchin. I reminded her that no number of degrees acquired now is going to save anyone who is not computer literate from being treated like an illiterate in the near future. To drive this point home, I compared such a person to the professor who was being ferried across a lake in a dugout.
The professor had started talking immediately the boat pulled out into the water. Not very happy that the boatman was not asking any question or contributing to his dissertation, he asked if he knew anything about cosmology. When the boatman replied he had not heard that word before, the professor changed to a new subject. But after talking for a while without again hearing a word from his companion, he asked whether the boatman knew anything about cartography. Again, his response was negative. The professor had tried two more subjects and the boatman had, like before, nothing to add or to ask. Exasperated on the last one, the professor has blurted out: if you know nothing about cosmology, cartography, astrology and even psychology, then half of your life is gone!
They continued in silence. But not for long. As they got to the middle of the vast lake, the boat hit something like a rock and water began to ooze in. Before their very eyes, it began to sink. The boatman had then begun to strip. Seeing what he was doing, the professor began to beg him not to abandon him. What, don't you know anything about swimmiology? The boatman had asked him before he leapt into the water. Nope! No! No! Help! Help! He shouted whereupon the boatman replied: if you don't know anything about swimmiology, then not only half your life but all your life is gone!
Did the professor actually drowned? My visitor, almost in tears, wanted to know and I told her it was only a fiction. She had then revealed that though not officially enrolled in a computer class, she had been practising with friends' computers even with those connected to the internet. She agreed that the mouse was actually not as wild as she had earlier thought. But that is not to say she was not sometimes still puzzled by computer/internet instructions and jargon.
She could not for instance, understand why in some cases, the full stop was called a dot in internet use. Dots were meant for small letters i and j. Why oshare dot com instead of oshare full stop com? Why change at to @. Why is a computer that is just switched on said to be booting instead of warming up? Why woofers instead of speakers? As far as she was concerned, most of these changes are not necessary at all. Why call something that cannot save the computer screen from breaking when hit with a hard object called a screen saver? Why call something that cannot be touched a software? Another puzzling thing with computers is when switching off. Instead of going straight to click on an icon for that, one has to click on a start icon first. To her, most of the new things, especially all the www.http:/ and what-have-you of computers and the internet are like an attempt to revive the hieroglyphic.
• Maduku, a retired Nigerian Army Captain and novelist, lives in Effurun-Otor, Delta State.