After all

E&T disagrees with Doris Lessing and celebrates the human side.

Meeting of the ends

I met Doris Lessing at a literary do several years ago. After a long conversation and several glasses of champagne, we decided to exchange contact details, and I asked her for an email address.

"I don't do Internet or emails," she told me proudly, scribbling down her postal address and landline telephone number instead. I didn't know then that Britain's greatest lady of letters was also a convinced technophobe and Internet-hater. That, incidentally, did not in any way reflect on her writing, and I was thrilled when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature at the end of last year.

In her highly publicised acceptance speech, Lessing raged against modern "young men and women" who "know nothing of the world" and "read nothing knowing only some speciality, for instance, computers". One can almost hear a disdain in her voice at the very mention of computers.

She went on to pour scorn at the Internet, "which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging…".

Paradoxically enough, only a couple of years earlier I would have been happy to agree with her. True, I was ready to recognise the convenience of sending an article to a newspaper by email rather than dictating it over the phone to a dispassionate copytaker or scribbling it down in longhand and handing it over to a typist (as I had done for so many years). On the other hand, I used to be a staunch opponent of a mobile phone and was the world's last (and possibly only) mobile refusenik. That was until last year, when my girlfriend gave me a nice little phone as a gift. To cut a long story short, now I can hardly imagine my life without that tiny gadget. It helps me stay in constant touch not just with her, but also with my 'estranged' (I hate that word) children, who live several hundred miles away.

True, technology can at times be intimidating and intrusive. But it can also be profoundly HUMAN. For example, Skype allows me not only to talk to my kids on a regular basis, but also to see their beautiful faces, their smiles, their new haircuts. Miles apart, we spend whole evenings playing chess, dominos and bowling (also on Skype), and the distance between us all but disappears.

Can one think of a more human application of technology than helping children and parents to maintain their bond?

Holgium

In my previous column, I promised to tell you about a technological breakthrough originating from Baarle-Nassau/Barrle Hertog - a cluster of Belgian and Dutch enclaves along the Dutch/Belgian border which resembles an ECG of a patient on the brink of a heart attack. Like a hank of wool thread, chased by a playful kitten, it thoughtlessly leaps across streets and squares cutting through houses, offices and shops. The confusion is such that every single building in town has to be marked not just with a number, but also with a tiny Dutch or Belgian flag underneath it. Out of three houses, standing next to each other on the same side of the same street, one can be in Belgium, one in Holland, and the third one split between the two.

There is literally no end to the duplicity of life in Baarle - the town with two Mayors (Belgian and Dutch), two sets of political parties, two town councils, two fire brigades trying to beat each other to conflagration sites, two post offices, two refuse collection services, and so on. It is the only town in the world where police forces of two different countries share not only the same police station building, but also the same rooms, with respective filing cabinets painted in the colours of the Dutch or Belgian national flags.

In case of fire

While in Baarle, I met and befriended Jack Haagen, a part-time chief of the town's voluntary Dutch fire brigade, who kindly agreed to show me around his station one afternoon.

It was the neatest fire station I had ever seen: firemen's helmets, suits and gear, stacked evenly on specially designated open shelves to be grabbed and used as soon as necessity arose,  all looked brand-new, and they probably WERE brand new. From the look of them, it was obvious they had not been either grabbed or used for many months, if at all. Mr Haagen showed me a 'crisis cellar' - a large well-equipped bomb shelter in the station's basement, where all residents of Baarle could find refuge in case of…

"In case of what?" I asked. "A sudden Belgian invasion?"

He laughed: "I think this is highly improbable. We are on excellent terms with our Belgian neighbours. We even have a common emergency phone number - 112. If dialled from a Belgian patch of Baarle, the call first goes to the switchboard in Antwerp, then to Baarle's Belgian fire station. Sometimes, if we are not sure of where exactly a call actually came from, we travel to the fire together with the town's Belgian fire brigade. If it turns out to be a Dutch fire, I am the boss; if the fire is in Belgium, my Belgian counterpart is. If we are there together, no matter whose fire it is, we split it into two parts and deal with one each.

"There is only one little problem," he went on. "Our Belgian colleagues have methods and training of their own. Also, their French-standard fire hoses are thicker than our German-standard ones and do not fit Dutch fire-hydrants, whereas ours do not fit theirs."

"How do you get around it?" I enquired.

The chief's kind face was beaming. From one of his desk drawers, he produced a round stainless-steel object, the size and the shape of a powerful telescopic lens. Hollow inside, the object had two differently shaped ends.

"What do you think this is?" he demanded cheerfully. I honestly said that I didn't have a clue.

"This is a unique fire-hose connector, designed and made in Baarle, with one end fitting Belgian fire-hoses and the other, Dutch ones! All Belgian and Dutch fire-engines in town carry it."

He was clearly relishing the effect he had made.

I handled the gleaming weighty adaptor - a double-edged fire-hose connector to suit the needs of two diverse communities in case of emergency. Cold to the touch, it was the most vivid technological symbol of human inventiveness and mutual adjustability.

If only Doris Lessing could see it, she would have become much less of a technophobe, I am sure.

Vitali Vitaliev is features editor of E&T (vvitaliev@theiet.org)

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