From Waugh's Rage column of 16th April 1993
SHARON JACKSON, a twenty-three year old guillotine operator in a wall coverings firm in Preston, Lancs, lost both her hands when the five-foot blade she was using apparently decided to ignore an infra-red safety beam. Nobody quite knows what went wrong, but because the girl had not received proper training in her German-made machine, the firm concerned was made to pay a £2,000 fine with £3,750 costs. Magistrates at Preston heard that instruction in these dangerous machines was entirely by word of mouth, with staff training each other. The prosecution described this as a system of ‘Chinese whispers’.
It is not my intention to take sides, but I would like to point out that practically no machine made nowadays is capable of being explained except by word of mouth. Even then, it is seldom that we learn more than a small proportion of the functions of which the machine is capable. In the case of most people over fifty, the problem is to get anything out of it at all.
At Christmas, my wife gave me the simplest type of video recorder into which you have to put no more than a number to secure instant obedience. It has never worked. Recently it was necessary to change various small parts of the heating system in my home in Somerset after 30 years. Two cheerful young men arrived at the house and installed some plastic boxes, full of moveable electronic dots, suns, moons and other symbols. When asked to explain how they worked, the pleasant young men made various mysterious passes over the dials and buttons, saying they had set the timing and temperatures for a different programme each day. Then they said that further information and instructions could be found in the literature they were leaving behind and went away with pleasant smiles, leaving a bill for £907.10 behind. They were an exceptionally nice couple. Called back a few weeks later, one of them explained with a disarming smile that he did not really know how to operate the system himself as there were so many different types and the models were always changing. The literature he had left behind was completely incomprehensible in any case:
Important note. When calculation [sic] the torque required to operate dampers, it is essential to take into account all the data supplied by the damper manufacturer concerning cross-sectional area, design, mounting and airflow conditions. Generally speaking, Type SM motors are capable of operating dampers with a cross-sectional area of up to 3m2'
Even if the instructions on my new heating system had been crystal clear, I could not possibly have read them because it would have taken the best part of a whole morning to do so.
But it is not the volume of instructions which threatens to cause modem life to fall apart, and threatens to bring our electronic civilisation to an end. It is our growing inability to explain how to work anything.
Those who say it is only the old, the classically educated and the drunk who are unable to master these things are about to be refuted. Sharon Jackson, sober and British-educated, was only twenty-three when she lost both her hands.
When one has decided that the electronic civilisation is doomed, everything falls into place and many anxieties disappear. Mr Tony Feldman, chairman of the first international conference on electronic books, explained his reception at the book fair in Olympia: ‘Most of them just don’t know how to react to the fact that the days of the printed word are numbered... I reckon publishing will soon be impossible to control. We will soon see electronic books which give the reader more power than either the author or the publisher.’ What can this nonsense mean? I remember when twerps like Mr Feldman ushered in the hovercraft as something which was going to revolutionise life as we knew it, then Concorde and Sir Clive Sinclair’s ridiculous battery-operated motor car. I know I was right not to buy a word processor, despite the delirious noises we hear about them. A secretary is much more efficient and time-saving, because while she is typing and retyping her employer can be getting on with another job. A secretary can file papers as efficiently as a floppy disk can store them, and she can make tea, meet trains and even cook meals when required.
Nobody can deny that the fax is a wonderful invention, however. This week the fax at the Literary Review ran out of paper, and astounded us all by remembering the messages it received when there was no paper. None of us had the faintest idea it was capable of such brilliance, although no doubt the incomprehensible handbooks had told us.
There used to be a time when children in English lessons, instead of being asked to be creative and write about how it might feel to be a rabbit, were told to describe how to ride a bicycle in as few and simple words as possible. That is the essential skill we have lost in the course of the electronic revolution. Until we learn it again, young women will continue to lose their hands in places like Preston, although I am pleased to say that Sharon’s hands have been sewn back on.