Look up, look down: How I learned to stop worrying and love the internet

I met Lovely Husband near the end of the last century.  When we first moved in together, I brought my desktop computer to his analogue home, and we installed it in the far corner of an upstairs study.  If I had an essay to finish, I’d take myself up to the study; otherwise, we’d share our single ugly couch.  And I’d like to say that we spent evening after evening discussing our hopes and dreams, and of course sometimes we did.  But life is mundane, and mostly he watched TV and I read a book.

Today, the technology lives in the lounge room with us.  I have an iPad, he has a netbook, and once the children are in bed and silence prevails, it is those screens we turn to.

It’s no different.  Where once he would turn from the television in the adverts and chat, now he looks up from an online newspaper to read out an interesting article.  Where once I would glance up from my book to offer a cup of tea, now I relay an interesting snippet of gossip from an online conversation – and then put on the kettle.

Back then, in our early years, he travelled a lot for business, spending weeks and months at a time in a place without telephone contact, let alone internet access.  So we wrote letters.  Real letters, on actual paper, sent through the mail.  We still have those, done up in a bundle, and every now and then I get them down to look through.  They’re a lovely record of our early years, a little time capsule of gossip and longing and plans for the future.

Today, we work a block from one another in the central business district, and trade emails in the slow parts of our day.  Those emails are shorter than our old long form letters, but no less significant.  They cover the mundane details of who’s picking up groceries tonight and did we remember to pay the phone bill.  They celebrate achievement and share frustrations.  Occasionally we hash out a marital problem that way.  If we collated our emails, they would tell a large part of the story of our marriage.

When email became popular, there were opinion columnists decrying the loss of the printed word.  Lauding physical letters as the sacred artefacts of history, they wondered what would be the record of a generation who communicate digitally?  This was in the early days, of course; once it became clear that one’s online activities and conversations do not, in fact, disappear into the ether, the opinions shifted.  Suddenly the articles were about preventing online activity precisely because it leaves a permanent record, as if this was somehow something new.

Whenever there is an advance in technology, there are people who herald it as the end of civilisation.  Indeed, Douglas Adams summed this up when he said

“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.

The telephone met with similar criticism.  No longer would people gather in convivial bunches, sharing their news in person and reinforcing their intimate bonds. Instead, isolated in their homes, they would pick up the telephone instead.

And here’s a chap named Eisenberg, in 1936:

The popularity of this new pastime among children has increased rapidly . . . This new invader of the privacy of the home has brought many a disturbing influence in its wake. Parents have become aware of a puzzling change in the behavior patterns of their children. They are bewildered by a host of new problems, and find themselves unprepared, frightened, resentful, helpless. They cannot lock out this intruder because it has gained an invincible hold of their children.

He’s talking about radio, but it might as well be Facebook. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – the latest technologies are always the latest target. By the time I finish writing this, no doubt a new social network will be set up and I’ll be out of date already, but for today, this is it.

Today, the big news is still Look Up, a short film by one James Turk which has, as the kids say, ‘gone viral’ with some 32 million hits to date.  Turk employs a series of stock photographs cut with the bare bones of a mundane ‘love story’, backed by some of the most saccharine rhyming doggerel ever penned.  For some reason, this premise – that if you spend too much time talking to people on line, using your smartphone, you will miss out on a true and fulfilled heteronormative life – has struck a chord with millions of people around the world.  Some of them, who number amongst my own friends, have sworn to ‘start living differently as of today’. Presumably, this means that I will no longer hear from those friends, because they live halfway across the world, and social media technology is by far the most effective way of communicating with them.

I am, in fact, always baffled by claims that social media has interfered with our ability to make meaningful human contact, or that it signals the death of the real friendship.  I can only presume that the people making these claims live in big cities, the sort of cities to which kindred souls gravitate and remain.  Or perhaps the small towns where people live and work in a small radius, and see one another weekly as they move around their limited circuit.

I live in a small city, the sort of place from which the best and brightest leave as soon as their education is over, and who rarely come back.  Most of my school friends have decamped that way, and while we hugged and wept and promised to email regularly, it didn’t work.  Email isn’t a good medium for this sort of thing, because it requires one to come up with content.  Without the day-to-day background of domestic minutiae, the deep conversations rarely happen.  If you have to stop halfway through a tossed-off anecdote to explain who Chloe is and why the issue of school costume was such a big deal, you start to wonder if it’s worth typing it out in the first place.  A victory against your landlord isn’t as real to someone who has never seen the rising damp or been informed when the spider in the bathroom had seven million babies.  The bricks of a friendship come from times of need, of celebration, or vulnerability, but they’re glued together with little quips, shared sights and the comfortable shorthand that only grows between people who have everything to say.

And that’s why social media is so powerful.  It’s often criticised as being full of pictures of people’s cats, details of what someone ate for breakfast, and lazy sharing of internet memes.  And it is.  Because those things are the things that make up people’s lives.  In the eighties, my friends and I shared a pair of headphones as we wore out our favourite Bangles song on our new Walkman.  In the – whatever we’re calling this decade – we share funny photographs and links to causes we care about.  When I was 13, my best friend was a huge U2 fan, and if I saw an article in a music magazine about Bono I’d cut it out and give it to her the next day.  Today, a Benedict Cumberbatch meme pops up on my feed and I think of another friend, who is endearingly obsessed with his lanky Britishness, and share it with her. The only difference is that I’m clicking, not cutting.  Sure, some of what I see every day is Instagrammed breakfasts; in a world where my best friend lives in Paris, that’s the only way I’ll get to share breakfast with her any more.

There are other friends from my past, the second-tier friends, people with whom the group dynamic was great but the one-on-one conversations rarely fizzed.  Facebook has brought us back together, facilitating those group conversations in a way that email never did, and the sheer logistics of work and family make impossible to reproduce in its original format.  It might take us a year to find a Saturday night where we’re all free, but we can log on to our computers and trade a friendly insult or two before our morning coffee.

To claim that social media has destroyed meaningful human connection is to give it far more power than it has.  The human need to connect is fundamental and unstoppable, and we will employ whatever technology we have in order to facilitate it.  People are connecting every day.  Babies are being born all over the place.  The world does not lack for human contact.  The difference is that we are no longer bounded by time and space.  It doesn’t matter that my best friend is getting up with her babies on one side of the world just as I’m catching a bus home on the other; we have the technology at our fingertips to surmount that, and our friendship has endured accordingly.  If we were to put down our phones and ‘look up’, we’d miss each other.

And then, eventually, we wouldn’t.

Today, my husband texts me to ask if I fancy a walk at lunchtime.  While we walk, we discuss something that’s trending on Twitter, a funny comment thread he read on Reddit, and what to have for dinner.   Neither of us look up at the things around us; we’re talking to one another.  Just as all those people on all those phones are doing.

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