Yesterday a stranger smiled at me as she passed me on the street, so I immediately scowled at her suspiciously. Did I have something on my face? Was she going to rob me? What did she know that I didn't? Finally it dawned on me that she was 'just being polite', and that my instinct had been to snarl in distrust before averting my eyes and marching past. I felt ashamed. Then again, it was hardly my fault, I reasoned defensively. Who goes around smiling at strangers anymore? This is London in 2016, not a Hovis ad.
Back in the safety of my flat, shielded from the bother of smiling lunatics, I pulled my phone out of my bag to Tweet about this unsettling encounter. I knew my Twitter family would understand. Then, disaster. As it dawned on me that I had left my charger at a friend's house, I watched my phone battery die with the same helpless, despairing loss of a mother waving her child off to university. Now I had to survive until my flatmate came home with her charger. I met her at the door, panting and clawing at her like an overexcited dog, until she gave me that sweet white cabled connection to the outside world. I then discovered that in the 72 minutes that I had been phone-free, two people had liked a photograph on my Instagram, a friend in Australia had sent me a photo of a tortoise on a skateboard, and Papa Johns had tried to entice me into one of their alluring little pizza traps. Hardly time-sensitive, earth-shattering pieces of communication (with the exception of the tortoise of course, because tortoises are awesome) but I felt a wave of reassurance wash over me as I scrolled through the nonsense. Reconnected to my lifeline, I lay on the couch next to the power socket and lovingly flicked through my Facebook feed, fighting the urge to wonder who half of these people even were. I grunted monosyllabically at my housemate as she chatted to me, my eyes glued to the phone.
Because this is where we are now as a society, this is what we've become. We can barely make it through a dinner, hell we can hardly stomach a conversation without our phones stitched to our hands, six inches from our eyes as we shun engaging with the living, breathing friends in front of us for the chance that someone we haven't actually made the effort to see in years might have pressed that magic little heart on the Instagram picture we took yesterday of a random dog. I say 'we', because if it is in fact just me then someone needs to come over, pry this laptop out of my hands and stick me on a dinghy in the middle of an ocean somewhere. It's the only way I'll learn.
Today's amazing technology means we can easily keep in touch with friends and family abroad and share our life experiences with our nearest and dearest, but it comes at a price. Our text conversations have jumped over to real life as we shun the use of please and thank you and speak in abbreviations. Technology has put an emphasis on speeding things up; we race through train stations, charge down streets, and tut and roll our eyes at the few people out there who actually do take the time to look at the world around them. We're not living our lives, we're ploughing through them. We wear ripped jeans and deliberately distressed clothes, as if looking like we don't have time to give a shit is something to be proud of. We're too rushed to use our manners, too hurried to smile at our neighbours. We're sprinting through our days, dashing through our relationships, and living our lives in shorthand.
We spend our time so busy getting the perfect angle for that Instagram photo for the people who are absent, that we're missing out on the event ourselves. We've stopped living honestly in the moment in order to project the perfect image of an experience we aren't even having. No one's life exists in Perpetua, Amaro or Walden, real life is often blurry and out of focus. So why are we so intent on filtering everything to display a radiantly fantastical existence that we aren't actually living?
On top of all that, all this advancement in the way we communicate certainly has an ugly side. From behind the safe anonymity of a computer keyboard people have far more scope to be bold and unpleasant, and can say things that they would never dare to in real life. Cyber-bullying and trolling are rife as people revel in the faceless obscurity of their online existence. Even otherwise pleasant and polite people are getting in on the act. Imagine having a heated political discussion at a house party, can you see that descending into the expletive-riddled vitriol you'll see any day in a Twitter dispute? (On a side note, get out of that house party immediately: young people on drugs discussing New Labour is a one-way street to apathy.)
So perhaps tomorrow morning as I charge through the city, I will consider whether the dithering dawdler ahead of me is actually going to have a detrimental effect on my day, or if I can afford to match their pace and actually live my life in the moment. Is it worth taking the time to smile at a stranger to receive a pleasant affirmation that we do not in fact live in a faceless, soulless society? Perhaps I could avoid taking a picture of a beautiful morning to share with my followers, and instead just let my eyes absorb and enjoy it as I stand there to relish a brief moment of peace. Maybe I will put my phone down as I sit with my friends, look them in the eye and actually hear their stories and engage with their lives. Am I willing to step back from technology and social media, and engage fully with the life in front of me instead? Well, let me just upload this blog to the internet, update my Facebook, check my Instagram, and I'll get right back to you.