Monday, 16 August 2010

Miss Write: Unplugged

This article made me so sad. And not just a brief moment of tut-tut-what-is-the-world-coming-to sad, but strong-desire-to-throw-my-laptop-out-of-the-window-and-drown-my-mobile-in-the-nearest-beverage sort of sad. Technology has been a part of my entire adult life – I got my first brick-like Nokia 3110 at about 13, way behind most teens at my streetwise school, and joined the dark cult of texting, instant messaging and constant miscommunication. I suppose when we flippantly say ‘technology’ we suppose it to be internet and mobile phone based ‘extras’, when of course the original landline phone is a piece of technology in itself. But it is the extras, seemingly endless, that are causing problems in my social sphere. Blackberries, iPhones, laptops and Wifi mean everyone is online everywhere they go; it is incredibly liberating in the sense that if you send someone a query via Facebook, Twitter, Blackberry messaging, voicemail or a good old fashioned text, you are pretty much guaranteed a response within minutes or hours. But on the other hand, it is incredibly frustrating if people don't or can't use one of these nifty mediums to get back to you. The basic assumption is that everyone is connected now, 24-7. No one is out of touch. Re-read that sentence. Is it a positive one? Are we even allowed to be out of touch?

I would describe myself as a technophobe, yet I am a Tweeter, a Facebooker, I have both webmail and Outlook accounts, an abandoned MySpace page, a Blackberry and a touchscreen phone. I had to be bullied into the latter as I was solemnly told by the 3Mobile goblins that only the touchscreens, Blackberries and ‘smartphones’ (the basic Nokia evidently the D student of the class) were compatible with the best contract deals. I stubbornly resisted for some time, until being coerced into purchasing a touchscreen LG this summer. This phone and I haven’t really settled into a honeymoon period yet; it sends blank and unfinished texts, its predictive dictionary is bizarrely devoid of any useable words and most unsettlingly, the display flips over into landscape from portrait if you so much as tilt the handset. I am clearly not as smart as my smartphone. If it even qualifies as a smartphone, which I suspect it does not. iPhones make me slightly queasy, and although I have a freebie BlackBerry which is very useful for free instant messaging and things like the GoogleMap application, it still has roughly four thousand logos standing for functions I can’t even begin to comprehend. So maybe I am just a technophobe by my generation’s standards.

I often come home from work to find three or four family members and friends perched on our sofas, each engrossed in the laptop in front of them. This remarkable combination of companionship and isolation is surreal to look at, but I know I have joined in on more than one occasion. My own laptop is no longer with us, having hung on admirably through six years, several knocks and drops, and resurrected itself more than once. It lasted its final months with the screen half hanging off, lots of amateur sellotape surgery holding it together and a tendency to simply switch off mid task. So now I watch people’s close relationships with their laptops with a certain detachment, before I rejoin their ranks in a month or so with a much-needed replacement for my impending student year. This woman’s description of her text and email-based relationship with her sons was a bit of a wake-up call, although it’s something I’ve been gradually coming round to for a while. How on earth do you break the cycle of cyber communication?

A couple of my friends have managed it; I may have to call them up via the alien device that is the landline phone and ask them if there is some sort of nirvana at the end of the process. The unfortunate fact is, for those who can’t bear to be out of the loop (and by the loop I mean recent photos of great days and nights out, invitations to future ones, and the general stream of wit and banter that Facebook has to offer) it is a huge step to remove oneself from a social networking site. I fear for my monastic ambitions to really take root, all of my favourite people would have to similarly shun the good ‘book and make a profound pact to call each other or, in a maverick twist, actually MEET UP to share conversation or pictures. There are people I haven’t seen for actual plural years who I consider myself ‘in touch’ with. Would the removal of myself from social cyberspace encourage more real-life contact and more tangible memories? Once something moves down the endless feed of Facebook debate and exhibitionism, it is forgotten. I’m just not sure what these endless options for instant communication are doing for our friendships.

Of course, there are so many advantages, logically speaking. With a Facebook message I can put out an idea of an outing, get everyone’s feedback (visible to all other guests) and summarise with the actual plan. Events are a fine way to get a head count and for people to RSVP easily, and I can’t say seeing people’s feedback on your photos is entirely disagreeable. But it brings out the worst in me and so many others. Trying to get over a break up in dignified silence? The temptation to make him feel bad and elicit sympathy from your friends will prove too much to resist. Getting married/having a baby/moving house? Boring people with the daily details is always a risk. Enraged by an acquaintance? Why not passive-aggressively bash out a generalized rant about ‘certain people’? Because if you drag your gaze away from the screen and glance in the mirror, you will see the distinct glaze of crazy in your eyes, that’s why.

So I’m considering the neo-Luddite route; Lily Allen’s done it twice (or thrice, it’s hard to keep track) but however much she tries, La Allen finds it just too damn simple to announce something like a pregnancy or a ‘retirement’ through a press release or an interview alone. Where’s the fanfare? There’s something deliciously controlling about reporting constantly on your own movements and actions. Even our parents are getting in on the act, if not seamlessly (my mum still asks us to ‘send’ her photos on Facebook, the tagging process continuing to elude her). The UK’s eldest Twitterer, Ivy Bean, recently passed away at the age of 103; greatly missed, if only for the quaint concept of being on Twitter at such a grand age. But I don’t like the fact that if someone’s busy, they can still be ‘in touch’ without having to actually see you. It is harder than it should be to explain why twelve texts and a funny wall post doesn’t constitute having seen someone, but maybe we don’t feel who is really there for us with this bizarre set-up of communication from all angles. Equally, maybe we are not really being there for a friend if we ask them what’s up on Facebook chat or respond to their Tweet. My biggest problems with the world of technology at the moment are the misunderstandings, the unread messages, and the odd frustration at those who are not as communicatively wired up as we are. It is easy to ‘overhear’ other friends planning or discussing a recent meet up on these mediums, and be offended at your exclusion. And in the event of heartbreak, the breaker is maddeningly visible to the breakee if they are not strong enough to hit that ‘remove’ button. Perhaps if we signed off, retired the mobiles and returned to a traditional phone call at least, we might get on a little better, move on a little faster, and say what actually needs to be said.

Of course, the major flaw is that I wouldn't be able to blog (or promote it in any way.) But I also wouldn't care who was reading, what they thought or if I was offending anybody. Today it feels infuriating that I want to do something so entangled in communication and self-marketing. In another life, or maybe a few years down the line, I would unplug everything, get away somewhere less polluted with the buzzing of phones and the pinging of emails, and do something very simple with my time. And maybe have clearer relationships as a result.

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