Constant Contact

It’s been a weird couple of months. For various real life reasons – my own illness and my mother being in and out of hospital – I haven’t been able to have much of an online presence. As a result, I have been running up and down the road between my home in Sheffield and hers in Newcastle. Book promotion and blogging have been the furthest things from my mind. And even if I had been able to think about such things, she has no internet so it would have been impossible anyway.

It is astonishing how out of touch I felt. And how deprived I felt when I was there. It has quickly become second nature to be constantly connected. I don’t just mean in terms of social networking either. The idea that the knowledge of the world is at your fingertips is an easy one to get used to. Why bother racking your brains trying to remember something when you could just look it up? Especially when to takes such a long time to get my brain into gear some days.

It wasn’t that long ago, when the Internet was a mere babe, that we had to put up with a dial up connection. (OK, so it was about ten to fifteen years ago but that isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things.) It was a chore to use the Internet then; the tying up of the phone line, the constant loss of signal, the slowness of pages loading, the fact that downloading was nigh on impossible. All these things seem chronically old fashioned now. Now that we are used to being able to hop onto the web wherever and whenever we are.

It was interesting to note that when my mother came home from hospital, her main mode of conversation was the phone – the land-line not her mobile. She talks to people all the time and wouldn’t think of anything else. She does have a mobile from which she sends rambling texts which are signed off love mam. But she only does that as a last resort, when, for whatever reason, I am not able to speak to her.

By contrast, I can’t think of the last time I picked up my land-line and phoned some one from it. In fact, I could probably get rid of it if not for the insistence of my mother and my in-laws that this is the way we should communicate. If I want to speak to friends I use Facebook, I text. If I have to actually speak to them, I phone using my mobile. (It should be obvious to you that I absolutely hate it when people say I’ll message you or Facebook me even when that person is me. But then I was suitably pedantic when people first started to use text as a verb.)

It is quick and convenient to text or use Facebook. The recipient can choose when to reply and you don’t have to worry that they will be bathing the kids or sitting down to dinner or whatever. It is also incredibly lazy. Why waste the energy that having a real conversation would take when you can send a one sentence text? Convenience and quickness have become the baseline of our communication.

The other thing I have noticed lately – and I am guilty of it myself – is that no one is ever bored any more  Everyone feels the need to be constantly entertained. Just look at the commuters on the average train and you will see them staring at screens of various sizes, doing things that seem crucially important but probably aren’t. All are lost in their own little worlds. Even in the pub you often see groups of people or couples who are not talking but messing with their phones. Virtual communication 1, Real communication 0.

Obviously, this could have a huge effect on everyone’s social skills. Especially now that younger and younger kids seem to have phones. Furthermore, what would happen if no one daydreamed any more  If every second was taken up with some form of electronic attention. Would all the great – and currently hypothetical – novels of the future remain unwritten? No more great discoveries would be made. (If Newton had been sitting under the tree playing on his IPhone when the apple landed on his head, would he have been able to draw himself away from Angry birds for long enough to hypothesise about gravity?) No more exciting leaps into the future. Sometimes you have to just be sitting staring out of the window, watching the world turn, to see the one thing that would make the world just a little bit better. Or sitting under a tree.

20 years ago today…

I know its my age – the looming horror of forty which is only just over the horizon – that is making me think back over my life. Maybe I have just got to the age where you can’t help but think that you have had your halcyon days. The music, the films, the TV were all better then. (I don’t really believe that, by the way, there is still excellent music, films and TV. My tolerance for the rubbish has just got lower.)

20 years ago, I was in my second year at university, in a student house with five other people. The house was damp. We were burgled and the landlord genuinely suggested that we spent a night without a door rather than have and come and fix the one that the burglars broke in their haste to get our stuff. My library books got so damp that I had to pay for some of them as they were unusable.

None of us had a car. Or a computer. In my third year, I eventually purchased a word processor. It was huge and useless. Like a really slow electric typewriter. It felt like the height of modernity. The university wasn’t much better. They had BBC computers where you had to manually add the formatting. It really did seem like it would never catch on. Compared to my current electronic dependency (it does genuinely seem as if there is always some piece of equipment charging), it seemed like a more innocent time.

I never imagined my mobile phone would become such an integral part of my life. As ever, I was probably one of the last people to get one and then one of the last to get a smart phone. It is just so very tempting. To phone. To upload a photo. To be in constant touch if you so desire. No one ever needs to worry. There is no need to lose touch. Communication is so easy. Easier equals better, right? That seems to be where the march of progress is taking us.

Could communication be diluted by the ease with which you can do it now? No one ever thinks that just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. 20 years ago, if I wanted to phone home, for example, I had to go across the road to the phone box (as we decided this was better than fighting over the phone bill) and hope that the person on the other end would agree to reverse the charges. This would usually end with someone – one of my housemates usually – banging on the door so they could use the phone. I’m not saying this was fun – and in the North West rain, it almost certainly wasn’t – but you did have to make it count. You didn’t feel compelled to inform people that you’ve just eaten a ham sandwich. Or that you were bored. (If you’re posting that you’re bored on Facebook, you need to seriously think about what you are doing with your life.) When did it become obligatory for people to communicate about every aspect of their lives? 

I seem to be suffering from the opposite problem at the moment. I can’t seem to find worthy detail to post. I’ve got Facebook block. Nothing seems important enough. I can’t help sitting in front of my screen and think who cares. Don’t get me wrong, I like Facebook. It is useful for keeping in touch with people who live a long way away and who I definitely feel closer to than I would have done but for the most part it just seems like the root of all inanity.

It surprises me, this nostalgia. I always thought that I was quite cynical. It turns out I am a romantic at heart. Who’d have thought it? Perhaps communication, like knowledge, should be hard won. It should have meaning and it should be thoughtful. Perhaps I should update my status to ‘my longing for the past is only matched by my happiness that I no longer live there.’ I don’t miss standing in a cold phone box but I do promise to think before I post.