Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The terror of technology...

This has been a week of technology. We are, the media tells us, on the brink of a robotics revolution (N.B. this does not preclude the possibility of other revolutions happening as well. Just saying...). A robotics revolution that will bring change to the human condition that is entirely unprecedented in our past - or at least since the discovery of fire - or the discovery that you can ferment grapes into a half decent Pinot Grigio. There is talk of 'robot rights', and the usual sound-bite backlash of the media hungry, or Daily Mail readers who didn't read beyond paragraph one in the first place. Science fiction is, almost, science fact. All a bit scary really. Technology moves on so very rapidly that who knows what will be invented in the next few years? Cold fusion perhaps? Electronic superconductors? Maybe we'll even get the long awaited hover-boots? They've been promised for long enough after all...

However, technology is most certainly our friend. It allows us to actually do what we are doing. In fact the growth in the whole area of studying historic graffiti is all down to the advent of new technologies. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Violet Pritchard was carrying out the research for her book, English Medieval Graffiti, she was essentially crippled by the technology available to her at the time. All of her recording was done by taking actual rubbings of the graffiti that she came across, in much the same way that people took rubbings of the monumental brasses. It was slow, it was inaccurate, and the results weren't brilliant. The rubbings only worked well on the most deeply cut inscriptions, leaving the more discrete inscriptions unrecorded. It also led to confusion. With thousands of individual pieces of paper, the odd mis-filed rubbing was fairly common place. Those who have gone to Marton in Lincolnshire looking for the amazing late medieval example of ship graffiti will actually find it at Bassingham, some considerable distance away. And to this day I am still picking small fragments of wax crayon out of the lines of numerous inscriptions across East Anglia - blue and green appear to have been favourites.

Today of course we use digital technology to record the graffiti. The advent of reasonably cheap digital cameras has completely changed the manner in which we carry out surveys. Had Pritchard tried to record the graffiti in a church like Lidgate in Suffolk using photography then the processing costs alone would have bankrupted her. Boots the Chemist would have made a fortune. However, today we can happily wander into a church and take hundreds of high resolution digital images, at almost no cost, even if half of them are subsequently discarded. Put simply, if it wasn't for the advent of the digital camera then the large scale surveys currently taking place across the country simply wouldn't be possible.

And technology has also be the driving force behind the spread of those surveys. The rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has allowed individuals to share their findings, to enthuse others, and come together to form new area or county surveys. Some are more formally organised, through groups such as the Wiltshire Field Group or MBA Archaeology. Others are simply groups of like minded individuals gathering together to share an interest. Indeed, these days barely a week goes by without a new group appearing somewhere or other - the 'Dunny-in-the-Wold Medieval Graffiti Appreciation Society', or the 'Society for the Recording of Really Old Graffiti in Churches, but can't come up with a Good Acronym' (SFTROGICBCCUWAGA). There are graffiti groups springing up in places I wasn't even aware still existed - Essex for example. There are multiple graffiti groups on social media platforms such as Facebook and Flickr. Some with thousands of members, freely sharing images. Others hidden away in dark corners, lest prying eyes try and steal their mason's marks. Recording early graffiti really has become 'a thing' for many thousands of people. All brought together by the power of social media. All made possible by recent advances in technology.

However, before we become too complacent, before we become just too comfortable with these new advances, there is one BIG thing to bear in mind. Technology is also our enemy. It is as much our enemy as an over enthusiastic churchwarden with a REALLY big tub of lime-wash and a manic gleam in their eyes.

Now I'm not talking here about some dystopian future in which legions of robots suddenly take it into their shiny metal heads to start visiting churches and recording the graffiti. The dystopian present seems quite bad enough without even contemplating that sort of thing. No, I am talking about the way in which the technology that we are currently using can, in the long run, fail us. In the first place it is worth remembering that technology advances at a frightening pace. So posting graffiti pictures to groups on Facebook or Twitter really isn't a long term recording strategy. Pretty interesting I'll grant you, but hardly long term archiving of the material. Now, for those of you under thirty, this may come as something as a shock, and you might want to sit down for a minute, but it IS fairly likely that platforms like Facebook won't be around forever. I know. Scary isn't it. No more kitten memes. No more cyber-stalking old classmates, just to see which one DID actually end up in prison. However, in the big scheme of things it is pretty likely. These things happen. Platforms come, and platforms go. Anyone remember Friends Reunited? When these platforms go, they go quickly, leaving barely a ripple. And with them will go all of your images - unless you have them properly archived elsewhere. So suddenly the technology that set us apart from Pritchard and her crayon rubbings, may actually leave us with far less to show for it.

And then there are the moments when the technology simply gets the better of us, despite our best intentions and best efforts. The moment when the technology demon really does leap out of the box, grab you by the dangly bits, and bring tears to the eyes. And I've seen quite a few instances of this lately. Entire church surveys undertaken by dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers, recording the graffiti on their tablets. Tablets that, because of their image settings, downsized every picture. Downsized every image to the extent that they were absolutely no use as a formal record of the inscriptions. Great for posting to Facebook obviously, but no use as an archive. Hours and hours of hard work, in often chilly conditions, all to no end.

So the technology that has allowed us to come so very far in such a short time may also, in the longer term, work against us. No shiny headed robots with built in LED spotlights. Just our own fallibility. So back up those photographs, print out those recording sheets, and do your bit to ensure that what has been recorded, stays recorded. If you don't I'm sending the shiny headed robots round... and you won't get the hover-boots.

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