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Time Makes Ancient Good Uncouth | By Terry Nugent

28 Jan 2022 10:39 PM | Sarah Louise Klose (Administrator)

There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe … the sun in the heavens and The Associated Press down here.” --Mark Twain

The above quote was published today by--wait for it--the Associated Press (AP). Well, I wonder how many people even know what the AP is. Journalism majors and others in the news business are familiar with it, but I imagine most folks have never heard of it, or its class of trade -- the wire service.

You can Google it -- but that's the point. Wire services were created shortly after the invention of the telegraph, in 1846 to be precise. It used the new technology to get the news out across the country, enabling information to travel at close to the speed of light from sea to shining sea.

Today, this seems trivial. You must remember this, though: before the invention of "the wire" as the telegraph was nicknamed, it could take months for news to travel across great distances via media such as the Pony Express. The speed of information was limited to the speed of physical travel, by horse or wind. Terrestrial news was like light from a distant galaxy. The concept of relativity comes to mind. To cite just one example of the often-tragic cost of the snail's pace of information dissemination, the Battle of New Orleans was fought after a treaty was signed to end the War of 1812.

Thus, "time makes ancient good uncouth." Huh? That was my reaction the first time I heard the quote. It was over 30 years ago. When my septuagenarian boss uttered those seemingly odd words, it was the first time, but not the last, I heard them. As time marched on, their insight resonated more and more powerfully.

Their source is a poem by James Russell Long: "The Present Crisis":

"New occasions teach new duties

Time makes ancient good uncouth"

So, when Twain praised the AP, he was right, but the AP using this ancient quote in the 21st Century is quite a stretch.

Time often makes ancient good uncouth. Many of the attitudes, notions, conventions, and traditions of my youth were good then but most uncouth now. Time marches on, crushing ancient wisdom. I keep a 1965 edition of the encyclopedia as a reminder of how wrong we were then. So, living in the past is a very poor choice. Citing old bromides can make an author look dated.

21st Century technology has been a mixed blessing for society. We live in an information age where bad news and rumor, fake news and misinformation still seem to win the race. When the AP was in its heyday, it was THE source for news. Today, everybody is their own wire service. The ubiquity of information technology has some terrible side effects.

However, one must not be a Luddite. Eschewing technological progress is the wrong answer. Instead, we must not only master technology but human nature. While Facebook and other social media are often blamed for the human condition, in fact they are just the latest information technology. The challenge is to teach folks to evaluate information better. While everyone is created equal in terms of human rights, everyone is capable of being a publisher these days, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, not everyone is an equally valuable or credible source.

The internet has disrupted the information marketplace in many ways. One of the most impactful is that it has made information valuation a much more challenging task. There are so many sources to choose from -- literally billions -- that it is more important than ever to entrust only trustworthy sources.

Terry Nugent is an IWOC Board member. President-Elect of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) GCAC, and Principal at Terryfic Writing, LLC.

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