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Hallo again to all.

As we sat down this week to write to you here, with a clear idea of what we wanted to say, it suddenly dawned on us that we'd already said it. We went back to read what we wrote in May 2005, and came away thinking that we'd already said it about as well as we know how, so it would be silly to try to say it again. It will be there, just as we wrote it, for as long as Anglicans Online exists. Given the existence of internet archives and repositories, it will probably even last longer than that.

Loading 120 roll film onto a stainless-steel reelWe think frequently about the permanence of information and the handing down of understanding. In school we remember being taught about 'lost arts': activities that people once knew how to do, but the knowledge has been lost. Perhaps the information has been written down and is incomprehensible; perhaps it was never written down. Until the advent of movies and audio and video tape, there was no way to record how to dance a pirouette or sing a descant or cook a poached egg. It was a skill that you had to learn from someone who already knew it. For many years we enjoyed photography and darkroom work, and we know from decades of experience that the only way to learn how to load a roll of film onto a stainless-steel developing spool is to sacrifice an unused roll, have an expert show you how to do it in full room light, and practise it in full room light until you are confident that you can do it in the dark with a roll of film that actually matters to you. If you get it wrong you will ruin your negatives. It no longer matters, since cameras are digital now, and don't use film.

We're confident that the founders of the Church felt the need to pass on understanding as well as written documentation. The very concept of bishops and priests, and the process for ordaining and consecrating them, memorializes the handing down of teachings that cannot usably be written down. The laying-on of hands is both a liturgy and a symbol that this wondrous process of passing on the faith received requires actual people in addition to the written word.

Now we live in a world in which any activity or object can be recorded on digital video, modelled in 3D animation, sculpted in replica with 3D copying machines, or cast in polymer. But the record is digital. The copy is a computer file. The sound recording is a computer file. The animation is a computer file, which comes to life when we process it with an 'animation player'.

Mars rising over Natchitoches, Louisiana  
Photo: Sonny Carter

As we all know, computer files can be edited. There exist mathematical techniques for certifying that a file has not been edited, but they require that the file be explicitly sealed when it is first created, and (like so many other activities requiring forethought) they aren't widely used. We note also with a smile that the technology industry itself has lost much of its earlier knowledge. For example, nobody knows how to make an 1101 memory chip any more. There's no need; this was the first memory chip ever mass produced. Modern chips are vastly bigger and faster and cheaper, and sensible designers will use them instead. But if you need an 1101 as a replacement part for some aging techno-artifact such as a military bomber, and you didn't stockpile them in the seventies, you're out of luck. We've lost that art.

The price of our increased ability to record and preserve human knowledge is a decreased ability to trust and believe what has been recorded. Truth remains elusive, and human nature remains a mix of faith and scepticism. Neither of those has changed in millennia, nor will. It seems only right that handing down require hands.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 20 August 2006

(Click for the 1 August update on Cynthia's cancer.)

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