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Is This the Age of Communication?

Posted: 29/12/2012 00:00

Is This The Age of Communication?

In technological terms it is. One person might have a thousand Facebook 'friends'. One person can send a short message via a tweet that might be read by a million people within a minute. Or spam three million people with the click of a button. One person alone can inspire a revolution by communicating with billions of other people across the globe through social networking websites. This is technological communication. Virtually, we are never alone.

According to the welfare institute Kaiser Family Foundation, on average children are spending over seven hours a day online, with many spending over 10 hours a day through use of multiple devices. My friend's 13-year-old son is testament to the statistics. He uses his PC to build websites 'for fun'. He is always plugged in, on his iPhone, headphones in, surfing the web. He's a perfectly friendly individual, though he doesn't speak much; but then he's a teenager, he doesn't want to talk to us. Fine. So long as he's talking to someone about the important things. Presumably those have not changed overnight, even if the way we communicate has. His mother complains that she can never get him to answer a text or email. There is irony there, but it is lost on him. He doesn't question the way he uses the technology; electronics are simply a significant part of his life.

The little old lady who lives across the street from me laughs to herself that she still doesn't get on with these "computer-thingies". Then she complains that her granddaughter never stops tapping at her iPad when she is meant to be spending time with her. Or listening to her iPod. Meanwhile, her eight-year-old grandson has pressing emails to reply to and homework to complete on different websites. She complains that techno-gadgets are taking over the young people's worlds and leaving behind the old folk, and putting too many demands on everyone. Children should be running around outside regardless of the weather, she says, using their imaginations to make their own entertainment. An old person's complaint, of course. She didn't grow up with the internet, with knowledge at the hit of a button. She doesn't understand that heady hit of obtaining the answer to something within the minute that you posed the question. She still uses snail mail to keep in touch with her friends. She lives, physically, with her family, but she also in lives in a world that is becoming increasingly lonely for people who don't gel with the constantly changing technology. She says that all the people in her family are living increasingly virtual lives. The bridge is virtually insurmountable.

I'm a technological communicator. Emails, newsletters, round robins. Articles, texts, comments. Tap tap, hit. But I enjoy social gatherings from the 'old world' too. Mulled wines and roast dinners. Good company and board games. Old friends and smiles. All of those things that can't be shared over the internet. Or can they? I'm a Skype addict; it enables me to talk to loved ones who are hundreds of miles away. But there are still those constant interruptions. Beep, ring, buzz. Luckily, I can remember a different world, a world without all the modern electronics, full of adventures and simple pleasures, and I remember it as a less stressful time, too. On the other hand, the current generation of young people have never experienced a world without gadgets. They are at ease with speedily-advancing technology that gives them a plethora of freedoms and instant access to information such as we have never experienced before, and they are lucky to have all this information and communication technology, quite literally, at their fingertips. Or so we say.

At a rare gathering of old friends - rare because we are usually all too busy to set meet-up dates, and we live scattered across the globe like Risk pieces - we are deep in familiar chatter when a friend's phone rings. It's a shockingly abrupt blare, ringing into our conversations. He apologises, but he doesn't switch off the intruder, because it's a work client. Instead he leaves the room. In the interim, another friend takes the opportunity to reply to emails on her iPhone. She is only here for a few hours, taking a break from work to catch up with everyone, on the cusp of moving abroad for maybe years to come. Now she is reading the news while I nip to the loo. I'm back and another phone conversation has begun. We used to be a close bunch, but it seems that now we are fractured by other, seemingly omnipresent individuals with their never-ending demands. Who are these people? Are they, too, sat trying to communicate with old friends and confused by the constant stream of demands and interruptions that arrive through their multimedia devices? Nothing can wait; everything has to happen now. Answer the electronics, no matter what they may be interrupting. Their demands come first. Just like that, we went from spending time together in the real world, to answering the demands of the virtual one. I'm even starting to wonder which world is which.

The conversation takes an interesting turn. We're camping, a large group of us, hiking through the wilds and pitching up tents. We all love this. Cooking stew on a big pot on an open fire as night closes in. Getting up at dawn and stroking wild ponies. Time doesn't matter here. But someone wonders what time the sun will rise, and before we know it someone else is on his smartphone to see if he can find out. Even in this secluded spot, miles from anywhere, he can obtain the answer. I wonder whether the air is thick with electromagnetic waves in every square inch of the UK. Then I wonder why it's so important to obtain the information immediately. Another friend echoes my thought. Now we're knee-deep in a lengthy discussion of electronics and data that encompasses everything from the Stone Age to cloning to the moon. Questions we end up asking are, why is it so important that we know everything at the drop of a hat? Whatever happened to patience? Waking up early to watch the sunrise, experiencing it with a glance at your watch instead of Googling it. Pontificating into the night with friends instead of having intimate conversations blown apart by texts, phone calls, emails. Asking questions without needing immediate answers and, when all else fails, the gentle turning of the pages of an encyclopedia.

We're too time-poor for any of that now; it has to be carefully scheduled in amongst other things. We try to emulate sponges, memorising everything we speed-read and glance over on the web. But we seem to have forgotten that we need time to digest what we read. Time to ponder, to muse, to idle away. There is something to be said for laziness, even. Instead we work hard and fast to gain more time which is used, in turn, to consume more data faster. When there are no natural boundaries to technological communication, it's hard to know whether or when we need to switch off. Or whether we can. Many people relax using the internet. Those who do take time out, log off and get away from the demands find that there is too much to catch up on when they get back; the world can move on alarmingly quickly in just a minute. We have to keep on top of it or it might leave us behind. There is a divide here of what may be the true cost of this age of information and communication; those who can keep up with it belong to it, while the rest of us belong in the past.

I'm a child of the mid-Eighties. My first mobile phone was a brick. I embraced this technology along with the rest of my generation, but few of us thought to question it at the time. We stood on the cusp of change, creatures of the 'old world'; internet-free, PC-less. Chalk boards and i-innocent, and saw only good things to come; we wondered where it might lead us, but not the impact it might have on our children. Certainly their brains are having to work differently due to this technology. Now, social networking takes up 22% of the internet user's time, and over 56% of social networkers have used these websites for spying on their partners.

Electronics created to increase communication were meant to connect us more, enrich our lives, but to whom are we more connected? To the internet, yes, to wifi, to email accounts, Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, et cetera. Always, we are connected to a wider world, embracing the biophilia of our minds merging with machines from the moment we wake up to the second our disconnected heads hit our iPillows. But many of us are also stuck in this web. We don't want to admit that it eats into our real communications, into our interactions with each other. That instead of saving us time, somehow it actually sucks it away. We are not really connected to each other either, experiencing real human interaction and spontaneity. You can send me an email from the other side of the world and I might read it within minutes. I can follow and memorise your every tweet without us ever experiencing each other's smiles in real life. It may be communication, but of what quality is it? We could take the time to discuss this into the early hours over pots of steaming tea, with a focus on whether we need to change the way we use and rely on this technology, and - most importantly - how our children have already come to rely on it. But instead I drink alone, and now I am reaching for my phone, because I'm behind on replying to emails, and this one will just take a minute...

 

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