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On not being reached

Enda O’Doherty writes: Rebecca Solnit, in a short diary piece published in the London Review of Books half a dozen years ago, dated the arrival in our lives of the mobile phone and the internet to 1995, a time before which, she argues, we lived in a sort of arcadia with a different quality of time. Perhaps.

In or around June 1995 human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound – and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavours – radio, television, print – and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.
Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people or your trivia.
You opened the mail when you came home from work, or when it arrived if you worked from home. Some of the mail was important and personal, not just bills. It was exciting to get a letter: the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words. Going back a little further, movies were seen in movie theatres, and a whole gorgeous ritual went along with seeing them. The subsidiary pleasures – dressing up, standing in line with strangers and friends, the smell of popcorn, holding hands in the dark – still exist, but more and more often movies are seen on smaller and smaller and more private screens. It used to be the case that when you were at a movie, you were 100 per cent there, in the velvety darkness watching lives unfold in flickering light (unless you were making out) ... That bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common.

Solnit’s date is about right, I think. I can remember the time when only a very few people had mobile phones, when they were the size of small bricks, and when answering them in public almost always drew a hostile response from others, “fucking yuppies” like as not. But the virus spread quickly enough. I was forced to get one myself in 1996 as I could be called in for work shifts at short notice and if I wasn’t contactable I wouldn’t get the work, or, more importantly, the pay. I didn’t like it much and was a bit embarrassed indeed to have such a thing. This feeling wasn’t helped much when one day it went off in my pocket as I was sitting at a desk beside a colleague whom I didn’t actually know, a well-regarded writer on fashion and expert on all things aesthetic who looked at me reproachfully and said: “Filthy things!”

When my work situation changed for the better a year or two later I dumped the phone. And I lived without such a thing for fifteen years until another change involving a (temporary) promotion led me to think I should probably have one again. But whether because I still had the name of being a Luddite and (hence) a weirdo or because I told only a very small number of my superiors that I had it, the damn thing rang only very infrequently. I didn’t mind this at all. The phone was merely an insurance against being held responsible for a failure to communicate, “to be reached” as we say, being there, being always ready to react being, for some reason, a particularly prized quality in the news and media business. My own role model as an employee, on the other hand, was Herman Melville’s scrivener Bartleby, who when asked to perform this or that parcel of tedious work, would reply “I would prefer not to.” Sadly, though I sympathised with his attitude I did not have his courage.

I tend to agree with Rebecca Solnit about the mobile phone, a device that enables you to be both constantly bothered and relentlessly and pitilessly “updated” (some of my younger colleagues, I remember, were very keen on being the most updated person in the room – “Fifty-eight people dead in that car bombing now.”). I still have the device, as it can come in handy once or twice a year, usually when, in a foreign city, there is a possibility of missing, or having to postpone, a rendezvous. But though it is indeed potentially mobile it is very seldom that it moves, being even more of a home bird than myself.

Email is a more complicated matter, having both major positive aspects and fairly significant (and growing) negative ones. “Some of the mail,” writes Solnit, “was important and personal, not just bills. It was exciting to get a letter: the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words.” But while the contents of a letter might remain personal (or private) – though not always – the fact of having received one was not. Adolescents back in the 1960s didn’t receive many letters and if they received one with a strange postmark (Dublin? Who does he know in Dublin?) a few weeks after returning from the Gaeltacht then two and two could be put together. Worse still if there were any other telltale signs. SAG (Saint Anthony Guide) on the back meant, or could be taken to mean, that the content wasn’t very hot – not that it was very likely to be anyway. SWALK (Sealed With A Loving Kiss) on the other hand might arouse concern. (I have a Californian friend who used to receive letters from her boyfriend with the message on the back of the envelope “Postie, postie, do your duty / Take this to my hot patootie.”)

Email at home has enabled me and many others to maintain contact and exchange ideas, or jokes, or references, or whimsical fantasies with a smallish circle of friends in an enjoyable and occasionally useful way. Neither I nor they would have sent letters. Email at work on the other hand is the largest single waste of scarce time. Some eighty per cent of mails received are junk, and it does not seem to be possible to block them; at any rate they are not being blocked. Another ten per cent certainly comes into the category “well I could have lived without that”. (There are people with whom it is possible to conduct business – say commissioning a piece of writing – with four emails [can you? / yes / here it is / thanks] and those who will require sixteen.) Eventually managements may have to tackle this problem of too much “communication” when they take in the fact that so much staff time is spent dealing with interference.

After the revolution, when the digital explosion boys and girls are all mouldering away in a chain of re-education camps which are furnished by way of inmate entertainment with nothing but books, the Internet can be remastered for the new humane age. There will be a choice of a maximum of only ten or twenty websites at any one time (sorry, no more room). Selecting what they would be could be a job for those formerly elected on the Seanad cultural panel. Everyone will be allowed to have email, which will be private in a way in which it currently is not, but only a maximum of fifteen correspondents. No one you don’t know or pre-approve will be able to write to you, ever. Oh, and there will be a five-minute news bulletin on the wireless twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays just after the midday Angelus. Don’t miss it if you want to keep up to date.

Image: the Maxwell smartphone. In TV’s Get Smart, which ran through the second half of the 1960s, secret agent Maxwell Smart (Agent 86) had his phone built into his shoe. He could be reached anywhere, at any time, even at a symphony concert.

27/6/2019