As writers, one of the things that lies at the heart of our intentions is connection. We write books that we want people to read. We share our thoughts, our fantasies, the products of our imagination, sometimes our biggest secrets and the deepest angst in our souls - and we put it all out there for the world to read about.
‘Only connect,’ said EM Forster, and, over a hundred years later, this is still what drives us. And I don’t think this desire is restricted to writers. We all want it. That’s why telephones were invented. It’s why the internet has pretty much taken over the world. It’s why Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc etc etc are as massively popular as they are. They allow us to reach out, communicate, share, meet, interact…connect.
So what happened? How did these means of connection suddenly become the very things that keep us isolated and disconnected?
Actually, it didn’t happen suddenly at all. It sneaked up on us so gradually that most of us don’t even realise that it has happened to us.
I used to live on a narrowboat on the canal. I remember the day BT put a line across the farmer’s field and I plugged a phone into it. Out there, on a boat on a canal in pretty much the middle of nowhere, I was connected. It was incredible. (Till the day the farmer ploughed his field and cut the line to shreds – but that’s a different story.)
I remember my first
mobile phone. I remember the first time someone showed me how to send an email
– and my awe at the notion that the recipient could read it from anywhere in the
world moments later. It was all very new at that time, and I’m glad that I am
part of a generation that still remembers a time before these things were taken for granted. I still am in awe of the internet and what we can do with it.
|Me on my beloved boat, Jester. Crikey, my hair was short back then.|
But sometimes I wish we could all take a couple of steps back.
Phones today can do SO much – and the problem is that, nowadays, we so often use them to separate ourselves from the world around us, rather than connect us to it.
A couple of examples.
I was catching a train yesterday. Whilst I waited for my train, I looked around. On the platform opposite there were about eight people. A few of them in pairs and a few on their own, waiting for the same train. EVERY SINGLE ONE of them was looking at their phone. Every one. Not talking to the person they were with. Not smiling at a stranger. Not noticing anyone or anything around them. Each of them was locked away on their own with their screen.
The night before that, I’d been to a Lady Gaga concert. (It was amazing, by the way. The woman is utterly bonkers but WOW – what a show she puts on!)
The best decision my partner and I made (other than to buy 'Early Entry' tickets and get a great spot!) was to leave our phones at home. We met a couple of guys on our way in and became instant friends. The four of us watched, listened, sang, danced and loved every minute of the concert. I took it all in. Gaga, the dancers, the crowds, the outfits, the music. I was there.
Around us, probably half the people I could see spent most of the evening holding out their phones to photograph and record the gig – presumably to then share it on some social networking site and say ‘Look, I was there!’
But were they? Were they really there?
|Generic photo off the internet - as I didn't have my phone/camera to take a pic!|
She wasn't the only one; far from it. All these people around us, so busy framing their shots, zooming in, zooming out, focussing, refocussing, they weren't even aware that in their haste to show they were there, they actually weren't there at all. They were watching an event via a tiny screen held up in the air that they could have watched for real if they put their phones away.
This isn’t a criticism of any of these people. Heck, I’ve done it myself. I’ve experienced something and started composing a Facebook status about it in my head before the moment is even over. I’ve half-watched a TV programme whilst on twitter and spent as much time reading tweets about it as taking in the programme itself. I’ve even sent a text to my partner from one end of the sofa to the other, asking for a cup of tea. (Only as a joke, I should point out.)
But I can’t help thinking that we have to start reversing things before it’s too late and we forget the art of human interaction altogether.
Last weekend, I was told about a site that I’d never heard of, but which apparently most people in their twenties already know about/use, called Tinder. The idea is that you log in to the app, tell it who you are looking for (gender, age group etc) and what kind of radius you are interested in, to a minimum of one kilometre, and the app does the rest. Any time someone fitting your wishlist comes into your specified zone, you get a notification. You check out their photos. If you like them, you give them a tick. If they like you, they give you a tick – then you can ‘chat’ and arrange to meet or whatever. (And I imagine that for many of the users, it’s the ‘or whatever’ that interests them.)
At the risk of sounding like the oldest fogiest old fogey in the room….
What happened to looking around? To conversation? To gradually getting to know someone? I’m not against online dating. Not remotely. I’m not, in fact, against any of this, and like I said, I'm as guilty of iPhone overuse as the next person. But I'm concerned by the constant speeding up of everything, and the taking us out of our surroundings to make us look at a screen instead of the things and the people around us.
So here’s my challenge – and I make it for myself as much as for anyone reading this. It’s not a super-radical idea. It’s about taking small steps.
Each day, use your phone a tiny bit less than you used it the day before. Make one decision a day where you say, ‘No, I won’t take my phone out of my pocket, I’ll smile at a stranger instead.’ Or one occasion where you decide, ‘I will allow myself this experience without having to share it online afterwards’. Just one small decision a day. Before we know it, we’ll all be connecting up again.
On which note I’m off for walkies with my partner, to chat, look at the waves, feel the salty air in my face and throw some stones for the dog.
And no, I’m not taking my phone.
|Here's one I took earlier.|