Now, I’m not very old. Compared to a butterfly, or a hamster, I’m positively ancient. But compared to you, I’m probably not very old at all. However, the world has changed so much in the last decade or two, that I feel old. I feel like the guy in Quantum Leap, lost forever in a time and place not my own. Most of this is due to the encroachment of technology on our lives, especially communication technology like the internet and mobile phones. It’s changed us as a society, and not for the better.
I have friends, people I’ve known for twenty five years or more, and they’re like strangers to me now. They’re glued to the phone in their palm or the iPad in their lap. I can’t hold a conversation with them, or watch a movie. Their eyes flicker away from mine. Our words are cut short by intrusive beeps and bloops. We may sit in the same room, but their minds are somewhere else.
Arguably these people have somewhat of an addiction to their phones or Facebook accounts, so they don’t wholly represent modern society, but this type of behaviour is becoming more and more acceptable, if not the norm.
When I was a kid, we never really used the telephone, and of course mobiles didn’t exist. Well, they did, but they were the size of a briefcase and if you had one it meant you were either a stock broker or a drug dealer. It seems silly that these days, the first question someone is asked when answering the phone is “where are you?”. Just ten or fifteen years ago, the question would have been absurd. Phoning someone required that you knew exactly where they were. In the hallway of their house, most likely. Unless they had a phone in their bedroom. Which of course they didn’t.
Anyway, we never used the phone to talk to each other. You’d say “See you Friday” or “I’ll come over tomorrow” and come Hell or high water you were there. The invention of the mobile phone, or more accurately the text message, allows people to remotely and voicelessly renege on their promises. We all have that friend, or in my case friends, who do this. The fickle and capricious bastards!
It never used to be like this. When I was young and the internet ’twas but a gleam in Tim Bernard Matthew’s eye, my friends and I would meet up and play (*cough*, I mean, hang out) after school. We’d wander around the block, or play soldier in each other’s gardens.
I’m going somewhere with this, so get comfy for story time, kids.
We enjoyed such mischievous and timeless games as “Knock Knock Ginger” (adjust the name for your region). This involved walking up a stranger’s garden path while your friends cowered behind a parked car or round the corner. You’d knock on the door, then run like hell and rejoin the pack. After the old biddy who lived inside undid her twelve or fourteen separate locks and stepped outside, you’d giggle and wet yourself as she blinked in the harsh daylight like an owl disturbed from its slumber. Disappointed that it wasn’t her son returning home from the war, she’d turn around and go back inside while you exchanged high-fives with your collaborators.
Other such outdoor pursuits included “Sitting in the Road”. We’d sit in the middle of the road on a conveniently-placed manhole cover and await a vehicle. Of course, the roads weren’t as busy back then so sometimes we’d be waiting all afternoon. When a car did approach, we’d test our mettle and endeavour to be the last one to abandon our position. This normally wasn’t me. Funnily enough, the drivers of the cars didn’t seem to find this game quite as hilarious as we did. We were often threatened with a swift and painful vehicular death.
One time, my next-next door neighbour (he lived two houses up) and I established our own detective agency. We’d walk around the block, looking for evidence of recent crime. I had a camera, you see, to create an irrefutable record. I also had a walkie talkie, but just the one. Fortunately, my friend also had a lone walkie talkie and they worked on the same frequency. Using the Morse code button, we’d attempt to send coded messages back and forth, but in reality it would rapidly devolve into incomprehensible dotting and dashing, before one of us would get fed up and just ask what the other was trying to say. It all seems a bit pointless, looking back, as the range of the walkie talkie was far inferior to the range of the human voice.
We weren’t cavemen, we had computer games and stuff. But for the most part, our days were spent outside and our imaginations filled in the blanks when high adventure was nowhere to be found. It disturbs me thinking about just how much of my childhood wouldn’t have been possible if the internet or smartphones were around.
Certainly, our detective agency would never have gotten off the ground. Why use Morse code, or tie a message to the cat’s collar, when you can text from anywhere? Phones have cameras too, and bloody good ones at that. Back then, a camera was a novelty – it took eight weeks for me to get my pictures back from the lab, and half of them came out solid black.
I can’t imagine growing up knowing exactly where my friends were and what they were doing, or having our parents able to call us at a moment’s notice. Heck, these days if you played Knock Knock Ginger, the lady answering the door would probably film you with her iPhone and upload it to your mum’s Facebook. Or send it straight to the rozzers. That technology would’ve ruined my childhood.
But Adam, you say, think of the benefits! A world of information at your fingertips! Think of today’s children, and how much they will learn!
To that I say bullshit. I learnt plenty as a kid; I was pretty smart. I read books and I payed attention, I joined the Scouts and went to museums. That was enough. Anything left over was probably arcane, or stuff I just wasn’t meant to know.
For example, my friends and I, we’d sit in the treehouse and ponder what a girl’s privates looked like. This mystery formed a considerable chunk of my youth and adolescence. Nowadays, the answer is but a keystroke away on any computer or phone.
One thing’s for sure; my kids are gonna have a hell of a filter on the computer. I may just block Google altogether. Oh, and Wikipedia. Maybe all images, ever, just to be safe. Of course, maybe the world will change again before I have children. There’ll be another paradigm shift, and things like the internet and computers will be ancient history. The iPad will be a dusty old paperweight, and the kids will mock it.
“You use your hands? It’s like a baby’s toy!”
“Size of a briefcase”