Alex Massie: We live in a smart (phone) world

Smart phones keep us better connected to our friends. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Smart phones keep us better connected to our friends. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The pre-mobile phone and e-mail era seems as distant as, say, the 19th century – but there’s  no point living in the past, says Alex Massie

Sometimes, I suppose, it’s reasonable to wonder if you can have too much of a good thing. Take Twitter, for instance. I signed up to Twitter in February 2008 so I can’t claim to be an “early adopter” of the micro-messaging service, merely a “reasonably early adopter”. Back then you had to explain to people what Twitter was and then you had to say why this apparently pointless medium for distributing messages containing no more than 140 characters (or letters as we called them then) was not, actually, quite as pointless as you might think.

Since then I have sent no fewer than 36,000 Tweets. If one allows – as a rough estimate – for 15 words per tweet this means I’ve written more than 550,000 words on Twitter. Which is a lot. I mean – and I acknowledge this is mildly terrifying – that’s about the same number of words as there are in the standard English translation of War and Peace. Perhaps I spend too much time on Twitter.

I thought about this earlier this week when I read that the Scottish Youth Hostelling Association is organising a technology-detox retreat on Arran later this year. Applicants will have their smartphones removed and will have to endure a week without access to social media. The horror of it! The inhumanity!

What’s the worst thing that can happen, this paper’s editorial column asked. “Not orthodox human communication, surely? With eye contact?” This was meant to be droll, of course, but it nevertheless reflected the widespread – yet still curious – suspicion that there’s something odd or second-rate about digital communication.

I mean, just look at all these young people, hooked on their phones and playing with the Facebook and the Twitter and the Snapchat and lord knows what else or whatever the new “next big thing” is. I’m not sure I understand any of it, frankly, and so there must be something wrong with it. Just because. I mean, back in the day we didn’t have anything like this and lacking smartphones and laptops never did us any harm did it? Right?

Well fiddlesticks to all that. It is, of course, true that the youth of today are always going to the dogs. That’s their role in life. You went there once, too. If you cannot baffle and befuddle your elders and betters then your generation has probably failed. Intra-generational bemusement is as standard a feature of life as it is traditional.

So, sure, worry that social media and technology is conditioning an already attention-deficient generation to become so dependent upon being permanently connected that they cannot imagine how life could ever have been led any other way. But at least try and remember that if you weren’t fretting about this you’d simply be fretting about something else. The real problem with young people is that they are young. Only time can cure that. In any case, as someone who remembers life before e-mail I can remember that it was, if not dreadful, then certainly much worse than life after e-mail. My generation was the first to own mobile phones and the first to be given e-mail addresses by our universities. That was 20 years ago and already the pre-phone and e-mail era seems as distant as, say, the nineteenth century.

Actually, of course, e-mail was another example of how everything new is often really quite like something old. In Victorian Britain city-dwellers could expect as many as half a dozen postal deliveries a day. You could arrange an evening’s entertainment by post by lunchtime. Frequent deliveries facilitated frequent communication. E-mail, at least initially, did something similar not least since, for most people, it could only be accessed via a desktop computer.

Still, it remains hard to remember life before e-mail and, especially, text messages. A time when – and today’s kids may find this hard to believe – plans, once made, had to be stuck to since there was often no useful way of contacting the other party to let them know that, actually, you’d like to change the plan.

But, look, sites such as Facebook and Twitter and whatever the kids are down with these days are great facilitators of communication, not threats to it. They allow us to make new friends and deepen existing friendships. I have “friends” encountered on Twitter whom I have never actually met in person but I feel I know them nonetheless. This too, is not altogether new. Epistolary friendships were hardly unknown in the 19th and 18th centuries and no-one, I think, reckons that strange or would think that our forbears were somehow inadequate for maintaining “virtual” friendships.

I find it hard to imagine life without my Facebook and Twitter accounts but that’s less because I’m troublingly addicted to social media than because I actually like my friends. And Facebook and Twitter is where we cultivate our friendships. They are places that allow us to remain involved in each other’s lives; places where we keep tabs on one another and places, however virtual, that allow us to maintain friendships.

Online we follow news of births and marriages, triumphs and calamities. We swap jokes and news stories and banter and gossip and keep in touch with each other. Friendships that might otherwise have withered due to a lack of attention – or because of the tyranny of geography – are maintained thanks to the wonders of technology. In the end, and in the round, this isn’t trivial even if many moments of twittering and facebooking are not much more than pointless blather and meaningless blethering.

Far from living in a virtual bubble, smartphones and tablets and laptops connect us in ways that simply would not be possible without the magic of modern technology. Smartphones, it turns out, make us better friends to one another. We are always connected, always “on” and never truly alone.

There is something wondrous and even magnificent about this and it’s just another way in which the modern world is, despite the temptation to think otherwise, in many ways better than the worlds you remember from your own youth.