Last month I referenced Upon the Hearth - a J.R.R Tolkien poem - and I was actually able to listen to him reading it. Maybe that seems mundane or ordinary - but it’s really quite remarkable.
Here it is:
It’s amazing enough that I can read the words written on the other side of the world before I was born. But this isn’t just something he created - it’s his voice. Part of him. In times past, this would have been séance territory.
But it’s not even just the fact that I can hear him. It’s also about how easy it is to get access to it. I literally asked Google for Upon the Hearth and a minute later was listening to it on YouTube.
Compare that, for example, with another author from my childhood: Charles Dickens. Unlike Tolkien, he was actually well-known for his public readings. And yet we can’t hear those readings today - only read the accounts from others who heard him.
I’ve read Dickens’ writings. I’ve seen his portraits. I’ve even been to the Charles Dickens Museum in London, in a house he once lived in. But I can’t hear his voice.
The same is true of music. Not only can I attend live performances of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s brilliant piano concertos, but I can actually hear recordings with him as the pianist.
This is remarkable. The recording is over 90 years ago, and he died nearly 80 years ago, and yet it’s just a quick Google away.
Compare this with the better known Ludwig van Beethoven: We know he conducted the premiere of his seventh symphony. Written accounts say that he was an enthusiastic conductor, even leaping in the air at one point. The second movement was particularly popular, and was immediately encored. Through the wonders of YouTube I can link a rendition of it, but not with Beethoven conducting:
What would it be like to watch him conducting? We’ll never know. We have his portrait, and we have the music, but we don’t even have audio from him, let alone video.
It’s become normal
I guess part of what I find remarkable is that we don’t consider this remarkable. We’re sending recordings of long dead authors and composers back and forth across the world in real time, and we’ve got so used to it that it seems normal.
Such is the march of technology: Things that once seemed ground-breaking become mundane, just a normal part of the world. I like Douglas Adams’ description of it:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
- Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
- Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
- Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
When I was growing up, there was no YouTube. The internet itself didn’t become a vital part of my life till I was in university, and I’m not sure I spent any time on it before high school.
As a child, there were cassettes or CDs if I wanted to listen to audiobooks or music. I actually did have cassettes that had interviews with Tolkien, so his voice wasn’t entirely new to me. But the point is that we did have to specifically purchase them or borrow them from the library - they weren’t just available on demand somewhere in the cloud.
Even when videos on demand started to be more of a thing, I still remember quotas and having to limit what I downloaded. Probably I was slower than many of my computing peers to adopt these technologies, and as a result didn’t understand people needing high download limits. Why should I pay extra for internet I didn’t use anyway?
And yet over the years it’s caught up with me, and relying on YouTube and other online content has become second nature. I expect it to be up 24/7 and to have exactly what I want. Sometimes it seems that I’m not so much amazed at what I now have at my fingertips as annoyed at the things I can’t find online.
A couple of centuries ago, people might emigrate to “the colonies” (far distant places like Australia) not knowing whether they would ever be able to see or talk to family members again. Perhaps they could communicate with them by letters, but those letters took months to deliver. In more recent years telegrams allowed faster communication, then long-distance telephone calls allowed people to talk in real time - but I gather neither of them were cheap.
Today, I can see and talk with work colleagues or loved ones on the other side of the world in real time, and it’s essentially free if both sides already have a reliable internet connection. During the Covid-19 pandemic that technology has allowed many, including me, to work from home full time. This is remarkable.
I’m still impressed that that internet connection can be available out in the wild. A few years back, I wrote about others taking and sending photos from a remote mountain top, and in more recent times have done it myself.
It’s not just about communication, either: These photos and videos can be stored. I have photos and videos of my siblings, my parents, and my grandparents going back many years. Some of them are now dead, but I can still see and hear them as they were, as well as see how they changed over the years.
If we do end up putting humans on Mars, I suspect we will be able to communicate with them far better than London was able to communicate with early Australian colonists. We can still see and hear Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, and I imagine those first setting foot on Mars will similarly be recorded for posterity. Putting humans on another planet and then talking with them will be a remarkable achievement, but I think with the moon as a dry run it may not seem quite so remarkable.
The democratisation of content
We have no recordings from the “Great Men” (and women) of 200 years ago. Even recordings from last century are more likely to be of the rich, the famous, those who had “made it”. And I do find it amazing how easily we can access some of those recordings. However, now the technology can be used by the masses to create and share content and to build an audience.
At least in theory, anyone can run their own blog. Anyone can record and upload videos of themselves to their own YouTube channel, and those videos can be seen within minutes by people on the other side of the world. The content may not be popular, of course - but it can be there, and it can remain after the death of the creator.
This blog is one example. It costs me very little (other than time) to run. I don’t have a large audience, but I know my posts are read by people on the other side of the world who I’ve never met and quite probably will never meet. There have been times where I’ve published a post, gone to sleep, and found comments on it when I woke up. And I could certainly take it further: While I don’t choose to share videos of myself, I believe I could easily do so.
Back when I was in school, there may have been a few blogs round but I had no idea I would one day be running one. I wouldn’t have expected to do much writing, really: I was a maths/science student and I enjoyed working with computers. But I guess I also would have thought (with some justice, perhaps!) that I wasn’t important enough for anyone to be interested in what I had to say.
However, times have changed. I don’t know which is more remarkable, really: Being able to listen to someone famous who’s been dead for nearly 50 years, or being able to connect with non-famous bloggers whose writings speak to me and to be able to publish my own thoughts and have them read by people on the other side of the world.
A brief golden period
We live on a world that has supported life for billions of years, and complex life for hundreds of millions of years. Hominids have been around for millions of years.
And yet our current progress relies heavily on agricultural processes begun ten - twenty thousand years ago. Many human lives, yes, but a blink of an eye in geologic time. And these things continue to build on each other: There’s the invention of writing. The recording of audio and video. The creation of the internet. The establishment of the likes of Google and YouTube.
What seems normal to us is, as far as we know, completely unprecedented in the history of the world. We have both a breadth of technology and a pace of change that is remarkable. And we just expect it to keep going. We expect that there will be new and improved technologies released this year, and next year, and the year after.
Something is put on the internet, and we expect it to stay around for ever. Putting people on Mars is much harder than putting them on the moon, but somehow we seem to expect that it will inevitably happen.
Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxon scholar. He revolutionised study of the old English text Beowulf. He knew the fragility of things from the past.
We have only one original text of Beowulf, which was somewhat damaged by a fire in 1731. A little more, and it would have joined the many lost works from long ago - possibly known from references or quotations in other works, but the original completely lost.
I’m sure that we now have digital copies of that original, as well as translations and commentaries making it more accessible to the general public. But it’s not perfectly preserved, and not only could it be lost but more recent works could be lost too.
Even if the technology we develop continues to advance (and I don’t think that is guaranteed), there will come a time when few people speak 20th Century English. Maybe there will be translations of Tolkien’s works. Maybe there won’t be. Maybe the recordings of his voice will continue to be stored and accessible, or maybe they will become irrelevant.
We can’t decide how future generations should view the works of Tolkien, or Dickens, or Beethoven. All we can do is to appreciate them and to try and preserve them for the next generation to decide what they want to do with them.
I mentioned a séance earlier. We can’t talk to Tolkien. We can’t get his view on how the world has changed since his death. But what we do have is his writings, and a few precious recordings of his voice frozen in time. And that’s remarkable enough.
Since one of the things YouTube does is try to link related videos, I’ll finish with another favourite poem from Tolkien: The Hoard.
It’s about greed, and about change, and about physical treasures rather than technology and ideas, but I think its final verse is very relevant here:
There is an old hoard in a dark rock,
forgotten behind doors none can unlock;
that grim gate no man can pass.
On the mound grows the green grass;
there sheep feed and the larks soar,
and the wind blows from the sea-shore.
The old hoard the Night shall keep,
while earth waits and the Elves sleep.
Our hoard is not gold and gems, but texts and audio recordings and videos and other content. We wish to preserve it and maintain access to it forever. However, I think there will come a time when civilisation changes or crumbles, and when the data centres of the world fail. Maybe our treasures will still be there buried deep, but no-one will know how to access or interpret them. Somewhere in that vault may be Tolkien reading this very poem, in a file format that is no longer known and in a language that no-one can speak. Or maybe the bits will have flipped, the redundancy we prize ourselves on will have been lost, and the data will finally be gone.
I believe the Earth will continue to be beautiful. There will still be animals roaming wild and birds soaring. And they won’t be interested in our remarkable technologies. Maybe there will still be humans living their lives in their own way. Maybe there won’t.
I think it’s worth trying to preserve what we have for future generations. And maybe I’d prefer future generations to care about Tolkien as much as I do. But if it turns out that they don’t, or that our record of his voice and of his work is more fragile than we realise, I still think it’s of value to us. It doesn’t have to last forever for us to appreciate how remarkable it is today.