Rebecca Solnit, in a recent London Review of Books essay, dates 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 and when the act of answering them in public almost always drew the response from others “Fucking yuppies.” But the virus spread quickly enough. I was forced to get one myself in 1996 as I could be called in for (then rather scarce) work shifts at short notice and needed to be contactable at all times. 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. Mr O’Byrne looked at me reproachfully and said: “Filthy things!”
When my work situation changed a year or two later and I got a regular shift pattern which didn’t depend on sudden calls in I dumped the phone. And I lived without such a thing for fifteen years until another change at work earlier this year led me to think I should probably have one again. I am glad to say however that it has only rung about ten times in total in the four months I’ve had it (indeed not at all in the past four weeks).
So I tend to agree with 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 though are very keen on being the most updated person in the room – “Fifty-eight people dead in that car bombing now.”)
Email is a more complicated matter, however, 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 (Dundalk? Who does he know in Dundalk?) 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 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 inscribed “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, with a smallish circle of friends in a very enjoyable and useful way. Neither I nor they would have sent letters. Email at work is the largest single waste of scarce time. Some seventy 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 twenty per cent certainly comes into the category “well I could have lived without that”. Eventually managements may have to tackle this problem 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 series of prison 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 radio twice a week, Wednesdays and Sundays just after the Angelus. Don’t miss it if you want to keep up to date.