Micro Mart ‘What are we losing?’

What are we losing through Technology?

Technology will always have its detractors. Whatever the device or development, there have always been, and will always be those who say nay.  It probably started back with the wheel, an invention that must have had one or two early humans grunting in dissatisfaction about how dragging woolly mammoth carcasses around just isn’t the same as it used to be. Take any major technological advance from human history and you’ll find a group of people prophesying that it sounds the death knell of privacy, decency and the good old fashioned way things should be done. Regency stick-in-the-muds warned that rail travel would not only open the doors to all kinds of kinky shenanigans between ladies and gentlemen, but also that the rate of acceleration would most likely cause your brain to slide out of your ears. Disbelievers repeated such lunatic warnings upon the arrival of the first motor engine, airplane and Sinclair C5 (though admittedly, less for fear of brain sliding and more for looking like a tit in the case of the C5).

As a species, human beings are suspicious of change. We’re creatures of habit whose factory settings are firmly switched to nostalgia. Things were better in the old days just… because. Pre-baby boomers never tire of telling us about the days when people used to leave their front doors unlocked, respect their elders and stand up for the national anthem. Films were proper, music was real, racism was unambiguous and the lack of rights for women and gay people was a proud, authentic national tradition. All round, it was a simpler time.

Children of the seventies and eighties are no different. We can be just as guilty of reminiscing to today’s kids about life before all this digital online jiggery pokery. Instead of getting bored by tales of dried egg rationing, now young people have to endure stories about the golden age of newspapers made from actual paper, waiting a week to get holiday photos developed and writing ‘boobies’ upside down on calculators. And it won’t stop either. A guaranteed sight in the coming decade will be Jedward rambling incomprehensively on a Channel 4 top one hundred countdown show about how they miss the App store because having Angry Birds lasered directly into your brain tissue just isn’t the same.

Loathe as I am to admit it, and as loyal a friend as it’s been to me over the years, sarcasm can only get us so far. The time has come for some non-ironic reflection on what might have been lost to the technological tsunami we’re surfing these days. And because of our species’ power to bring ourselves to feel nostalgia for just about anything (remember the nit nurse? God, those were the days…), it’s important to make a distinction between just remembering stuff and the actual ache of nostalgia for a past that’s now lost to us, a home to which we can’t ever return.

We all have our personal routes back to memories. Like the cynical food critic in Pixar’s Ratatouille zooming back to short-trousered childhood innocence with just a mouthful of eponymous rustic fare, we’ve all got our buttons. Mine, aptly enough is actually a button. Or at least the sound of one.

Ka-duunk. Wait. Count to six. A faint whir, then another satisfyingly heavy ka-duunk.  Play and record catch simultaneously and recess back to just proud of the surface. The revolving tape goes from clear to stewed tea brown and it begins. I don’t know how many compilation tapes I made on my Dad’s seventies double cassette hi-fi (in a fit of new year rationalism about five years ago I sent them all to the tip) but I remember the process. Hovering over the pause button to make sure I’d caught the last fading bars then eject, turn over, insert, rewind and again, count to six…

The buoyant ta-tic of a mouse button is nothing to ka-duunk. Ka-duunk was a sound that somehow encompassed its age, it was the sound of the cold war, the three day week and a solitary child on a space hopper. Ka-duunk said it all. Ta-tic is so lacking in comparison, it sounds like the noise Miley Cyrus should make when she blinks. I realise that dragging a file into a playlist is much more convenient and much less effort, but the romance and ritual of those adolescent 90 minute tape-making evenings feels like something I’ve lost. I have a strong suspicion the only reason I passed GCSE Maths was thanks to honing my powers of mental arithmetic until I could find the remainder of seconds as a running total counting backwards from 2,688 after subtracting the duration of any given Radiohead song. It’s an education you just can’t get these days.

The same can be said about any number of rituals that have been seen off by the last decade’s worth of technological developments. Fighting with static as you sealed your snaps behind their protective cellophane cover, peeling it back to flatten out wrinkles before resealing. Being so impatient to have your photos developed that you use the last two of each roll taking pictures of your dog wearing a hat and sunglasses. At least we haven’t lost the really important stuff though, our dogs still wear hats and sunglasses, just now they’re accompanied by a series of shrieking YouTube comments telling us LOL!!OMGcuuutest!!! and YOU’RE DOGG IS A LOOSER.

I should clarify at this point that I’m not a luddite. It may have taken me two and a half years to find out how to turn shuffle off on my iPod but I embrace technology. Saying that technological advances have destroyed modern life is like saying penicillin has taken all the fun out of cholera. Modern advances are our friend but they’re also a game-changer, and it doesn’t make us techie traitors if we confess to missing the pre-change game a bit.

We’re at an interesting turning point in our technological history, when, much like a new year sort-out on a grand scale, it’s out with the old and in with the new. Things we used on a daily basis not even a decade ago are now completely defunct. Wristwatches? With mobiles, why bother? Pocket calculators, phone boxes, reading in the bath, newspapers that double as fish and chip wrapping… As the man says, the times they are a’changing.

As a child, every year for my birthday I’d receive an age and gender appropriate card from my Grandad scripted in beautiful calligraphic handwriting, with ribbons of lavish loops and elegant sweeps in ink that came out of a bottle. Born in 1914, my Grandad took pride in his beautiful handwriting, a talent he passed on to my Dad but which didn’t quite make the generational jump to any of us kids. Have you ever been asked to write something in longhand when your fingers have been used only to typing for several days? Not only does the pen feel alien, more often than not what you produce comes out in a scrawl that would make our primary school teachers shake their heads in dismay.

These days, more and more slim notebooks and skinny laptops are popping up in classrooms and university lecture halls, raising not only the possibility of handwriting dying out in countries where people are rich enough to type everything, but also, of the prospect of the death of the common doodle. Without doodling, how are students and pupils meant to assert their personality and cryptically advertise the name of the person they fancy? No lidless eye sockets dripping blood from the dagger plunged into them? No gothic flowers trailing alongside the formula for photosynthesis? In a world without handwriting or doodling, FBI profilers will soon be bereft of ways to gauge the personality type and mood of serial killers, apart from the fairly safe bet that they’re probably a bit stabby.

Speaking of unwelcome additions to classrooms and lecture halls, nothing can have changed the game more substantially or more rapidly than mobile phones. These tricksy devices have put pay to the humble payphone. No more the intriguing aroma of urine and sugar puffs, no more the hopeful change drawer check for neglected coins. Superman will have to change in the Debenhams toilet from now on (and he’ll need to get the special code from customer services to do so).  It’s not just payphones though, phonebooks have lost all relevance, as has the brain function of remembering strings of numbers longer than the date. I don’t know about you, but I have no idea what are the phone numbers of my family and close friends any more. The part of our brains that used to memorise digits has now been freed up for the more pressing task of watching videos of kittens yawning on YouTube.

Another one for the endangered list is children’s board games, soon to be relegated to museum status by games consoles. We still play games but an important and time-old childhood tradition is now missing from the experience: cheating. I’m not talking about the coward’s act of looking up games cheats online, I mean the kind of thrill that free-range, creative cheating in the real world used to provide. No more distracting younger siblings with a “Look, She-Ra!” while a couple of hundred quid of Monopoly money goes up your sleeve or braille reading the scrabble letters until you get that much-needed ‘U’, now you get whatever the algorithm allocates you, and that’s that.

In fact most of these developments mean human ingenuity is at risk. With restriction comes rule bending, and all this freedom dulls our inventive instincts. Back when the length of a phone call meant something, humans had to keep their wits about them to streamline costs. Plans were made, appointments were kept to. Dates were set. My Mum and the friend with whom she shared childcare even developed a cunning system to avoid incurring any charge whatsoever in their daily communications. One would call the other and let the phone ring  a certain number of times before putting it down to send a previously assigned message. One ring meant ‘I’ll be round in a minute’, two meant ‘come and pick up your brood from mine’, three was cipher for ‘we’ll do their tea and Geoff will bring them back after Tomorrow’s World’ and so on. Necessity is the mother of invention, and mine was the most inventive mother out there.

Constraints aren’t always negatives, they challenge our ingenuity and exercise our inventiveness. It’s the reason poets write in metre. Think about the last time you arranged to meet someone in public. Was it a militarily precise ‘In front of the west face of the county hall clock next to the community arts sculpture that looks like an obese scarecrow peeing’? Or more of an ‘I’ll be somewhere near Oxford Street twelvish’ followed by seven phone calls to pin point your exact position. Yes, mobile phones are extraordinary devices, but this kind of flabby vagueness isn’t going to aid our evolution any.

I think we can all agree that internet TV and Sky Plus have made watching telly much more convenient, but am I alone in missing the schedule actually being a schedule? We used to have to cook meals, bathe children and complete charitable works all in time to sit down for the opening credits of a particular show, at a time when we knew others would be watching it. Now the schedule means nothing and shows can be caught at random, paying no heed to the concept of a timetable, much in the style of Southeastern Trains. But is all this choice really good for us? Janis Joplin once sang that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, and while she wasn’t talking specifically about BBC iplayer, she was a woman ahead of her time…

Speaking of women, much as I hate to justify facile gender stereotypes, I was unlucky enough to be born with the handy ‘sense of direction-free’ version of the X chromosome, which means one modern invention is a thing of godlike wonder as far as I’m concerned. The sat nav. Couples now no longer need argue with each other in the car, but can instead hold Brian Blessed or Mr T responsible when ‘the next exit’ turns out to be the driveway to an angry-looking man’s bungalow. One of my best friend’s relationships could actually have been saved had the sat nav been popularly available a few years earlier after she spent a doomed trip to Bristol with her now ex-boyfriend navigating their route under the misapprehension that the long blue snakey thing going along the map was a river and not the M4. Sat navs, girls and boys who can’t read maps need ‘em.

In the days when navigation used to be done the hard way, with constellations and tree moss, getting in touch with people also took more than a little effort. The age of the telegram and before that, semaphore and smoke signals meant that communication was precious and difficult, keeping human beings’ natural proclivity to insult one another to a minimum of that which could be shouted out of the windows of hansom cabs or daubed on front doors in pig blood. Nowadays, we can insult people we’ve never met in a complete range of colours and textures. Thanks to Twitter we can even do it to celebrities. The risk we run by being just a finger click away from being insulted in the most colourful way imaginable is tempered by the joys of watching bad TV with Twitter pals – it’s like having Waldorf and Statler in your pocket buzzing sarcasm and derision straight into your living room, saving you the hassle of doing it yourself.

Social networking is of course a key player in any talk of things not being like they used to. It’s altered the ways we get into, conduct and get out of relationships, as well as spawning an iceberg of ambiguity about what constitutes a friendship. The past and present actions of potential new partners are now available to be scrutinised in the hours of cyber stalking homework that precedes trysts in recent years. It’s now possible to garner the real details of what happened with their ex and pick apart those Corfu 2008 snaps for signs of something more than friendship between your other half and their platonic bezzie mate of the opposite sex. But does any of this make us happier? Better informed maybe, but happier?

Some will argue that modern technology has always taken away more than it’s given us. The Amish reject that which weakens the family structure or makes us less dependent on community which covers, well, most of it if we’re honest with ourselves. Centuries ago, some warned that the leaps and bounds of the industrial revolution would bring a kind of sickness into the heart of society but since those people were either dirt-poor weavers or consumptive poets, no-one really paid much heed and technology continued its inexorable march forwards.

When Einstein said that our technology had exceeded our humanity, we’re pretty sure he was talking about the A-bomb rather than Facebook, but they’re wise words nonetheless. As long as we advance, so will technology, and amen to that. But looking forwards doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong at the occasional glance back at what was lost along the way.

This article originally appeared in issue 1143 of Micro Mart on 3rd Feb 2011