Radio: Tick here, please

17 March 2010

by Edward Wickham

TEACHERS assess pupils; pupils assess teachers. Critics grade books, recordings, exhibitions, and plays. The lovelorn tick boxes to assess potential partners. And we are all of us, from time to time, asked to spare a moment to fill in a questionnaire about our shopping/dining/entertainment experience.

It is all part of our obsession with auditing our lives, says Lucy Kim­bell, of the Saïd Business School, in Oxford. As a satirical exercise, Ms Kimbell recently did an audit of her own life and relationships, asking friends and family to assess the value of her friendship.

Not everyone got the joke, and she received a number of earnest returns with boxes duly ticked and grades conscientiously given. So inured are we to the assessment culture that we barely regard it as strange or inappropriate.

But, as the surprisingly entertain­ing A Brief History of Double-Entry Book-Keeping (Radio 4, weekdays) revealed last week, this approach to public and private self-examination is in keeping with the ambition of those merchants and businessmen who, back in the 15th century, revolutionised the practice of auditing, and created the now global language of accounting.

The man held responsible is one Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli, a Franciscan friar who saw in the ordered beauty of the double-entry system a reflection of God’s crea­tion. Furthermore, the programme described this as the age in which confession became a Chris­tian ob­liga­tion, and the auditing of one’s public affairs mirrored one’s re­spons­ibility as a Christian to con­sider all one’s deeds, good and evil.

Of course, there are a number of problems with this train of argu­ment, not least with the fact that double-entry book-keeping is as adept at concealing fraud as any other system. Beyond the rigorous rationale lie great swaths of human experience which the auditor cannot begin to appreciate: the impact of a business’s debits and credits on the environment or on a community.


Not without trying, however, which is why institutions now busy themselves with eco-accounting, and arts organisations desperately try to audit the effect of their work on their audiences in order to secure essential funding.

As I write, atheists from around the world are enjoying a global convention in Melbourne. To mark the occasion, Night Waves (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week), hosted yet another science v. religion debate, on this occasion between the writer Charles Moore and Professor Peter Atkins. I say this with what might sound like ungrateful ennui: after all, it is not as if the airwaves are over­run with religious debate featuring two highly articulate and persuasive characters.

But the sad truth is that this dis­cussion has not progressed one inch from the sort of pow-wows being broadcast a decade ago. While the disputants seem as energetic as ever, the rhetoric is tired and hackneyed. It is worthy, but dull.

By contrast, the Friday-morning comedy-drama slot on Radio 4 was occupied by the last of Simon Brett’s hugely entertaining People in Cars: Sat love. I will not give away the plot: let’s just say you should never trust your TomTom to be a silent observer of your indiscretions. When a satnav gets a mind of its own, you may get some directions you were not expecting.

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