He was – as this species often are – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as the saying goes. He was a technology buff and he was on the TV program to talk about future developments. He did admit how difficult it is to predict what may become possible in the next 10 years, although one thing is certain: There will be no slowing down.
But then he mentioned some of the things technology might provide to the general consumer – and among them was the business of recognition. He thought, I gathered (I was only half listening, being more involved with cornflakes at that moment), that it would be wonderful if we were able to carry around with us a clever device with an earpiece so that when we met someone in the street or across a crowded room and couldn't bring his or her name to mind, a little voice in our ear would inform us ("Yehudi approaching on right. Ellsworth straight ahead") before we ended up committing a social gaffe by having to admit that we can't quite remember ... sorry! ... James, isn't it? Oh, no, of course, how silly of me, it's William, of course it is.
I can see how, had this technology been available then, the stylist who cuts my hair would have been saved from an embarrassment early in her professional days.
A woman came into her salon to book an appointment. She was a regular customer, and Paris (that really is the hairdresser's name and therefore hard to forget) told me: "As I went to write down her name in the appointments book – is that enough off above your ears? – she bent over the desk to watch me write it down. Total blank! I couldn't think what her name was! So I said, 'How do you spell your name again?' hoping this would be a way of escape. She spelled it out for me slowly: 'P–A–T.' "
However, I am skeptical about this particular technical breakthrough, really. I am as bad at people's names as your next man, but I am not sure I want a thing stuck in my ear all the time on the off chance that it might save me from that particular shame once or twice a year. And how would this smart technology cope when you are at a party and everyone is talking at once or six people come over to chat simultaneously?
But the TV enthusiast was still waxing lyrical about the future. "Think of the possibilities," he was saying. "You might be out walking in the countryside and spot a flower you've never seen before. You would have instant access to its name! Just imagine!"
I could imagine – sort of. But I wasn't at all sure I wanted to. It's pleasant to be able to give a name to things in nature – birds, animals, flowers. But this is an after-the-experience, armchair business mostly.
Walking encyclopedias, as some nature lovers are, can be a bit of a bore. That tiny, flitting, shy bird over there, for instance – does knowing its name do anything essential to the sheer enjoyment of its antics? Its names happen to be splendid – wren in common English, Troglodytes troglodytes more formally (the English name being rather more commensurate to its smallness).
But a wren by any other name would be as sweet. And with earpieces plugged in, how would you hear its loudly shrilled indignation at your invasion of its territory?
On the whole I go along with what Walt Whitman wrote in "Specimen Days": You "must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers. A certain free margin ... helps your enjoyment of these things."
When I walk the dogs along the footpath that runs through the wildest area of natural unkemptness near our urban house, we now and then find ourselves among passing cyclists and runners.
The dogs find this rapid transition of human creatures odd and interesting – and somewhat tempting chase-wise. Mostly they run up to the people in friendly greeting. Now and then they feel the added need to bark at them. This is not aggressive barking; it is conversation.
I think they may sense that these accelerant bodies are somehow out of touch and need to be alerted to the significant canine presence. No wonder! Without exception, they are entirely deaf to the world around them, carrying iPods and listening intently to their own private music.
To me, too, they are alien beings, existing in a different time and place, and while I don't want to interfere with their human rights, I wouldn't at all object if they were to pause a moment, unplug, and have a friendly chat.
I'd even tell them my name if they were interested. That is, assuming I can remember my name without the tech buff's futuristic device to help me.