I used to have a smartphone. My brother gave it to me — in fact he gives me lots of things. At least half of my clothes are Tim’s cast-offs, and I think he despairs of me a little sometimes. When I was getting ready for my wedding, he was extremely irritated to learn that I didn’t own a tie. He then loaned me a tie to get married in, and actually he had to tie the knot as well. Sorry Tim.
But this post is about phones, or rather — technology. See, this smartphone that Tim gave me, all those years ago — it was great. I could check email on the go. I wrote my Twitter stories on it sometimes, and took lots of photos. When I was bored, on trains or at bus stops, I played Catan or chess.
Now, bear with me. This post will go sideways a couple of times, because it is also about notebooks. For almost as long as I’ve been writing fiction — about eight or nine years, now — I’ve kept a notebook in my back pocket. Into those notebooks have gone countless ideas, most of them nonsense, and lots of lines of dialogue, or overheard snatches of conversations, even single words I wanted to think about later. The act of writing them down was perhaps more important than reading them later — I liked the moment of formalising and clarifying the thought, no matter how fleeting it would prove.
It used to take me somewhere between two weeks and two months to get through a notebook. I gradually found myself taking longer to fill them — and then so long that they disintegrated in my pockets. It probably took me a year or so before I connected the smartphone to the notebooks, but once I’d joined the dots, I couldn’t unjoin them — the simple truth was that I was writing less since I’d got the smartphone. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I wasn’t simply writing less — I was thinking less. I was feeling less. Before I owned a smartphone, I’d spent my train trips and bus stops eavesdropping on people, real people in real places with real lives, imagining who they were and where they’d come from. I used to write down the cadences and accents of their speech, and bring those patterns in my writing. I wrote about their clothes, their shoes, the way they walked. With a smartphone, all that stopped — because I was playing Catan instead, and that was easier.
When Tim’s old phone died, I didn’t replace it — instead, I spent £9 at the supermarket and bought a dumbphone — a brick. We call smartphones smart, but in truth they dull our senses. They lock us into ourselves, shut us down. On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, I’ve suggested getting rid of your smartphone, should you have one. They are vampires for your time and your wits.
This isn’t only me being a Luddite (although there is also some of that involved). I’ve been worried for a while about social media, about online interaction, about the casual saturation of technology into every bit of our lives. In my younger days, when I had a little more piss and vinegar, I got into some humdinging arguments online. I once lost out on a dream job because I couldn’t bite my tongue in an email exchange — I simply couldn’t abide for someone else to have the last word — and this is interesting, because in real life I consider myself to be exceedingly diplomatic — I’ve worked for monstrously unreasonable people and more than once sustained a wage by biting my tongue. So what is it that happens to us, below the line? Why does a red mist descend, once we’ve plunged into the comments?
Part of me thinks it’s the lack of body language, the lack of nuance in our communication — but then surely that would be true of letters, too, and it’s not. Perhaps the difference is in the immediacy and the spontaneity of our response. There’s no delay anymore, no moment of measure. Communication has become a mirror. We look into the screens, and they look back, and if we miss the moment, it’s gone — and the compulsion to curate our own image leads to meltdowns, polarisation, echo chambers, horseshit and dead ends. The need to share, share, share — it’s left us so lonely.
I’m talking about this because Jonathan Safran Foer has just written a compelling piece about how technology diminishes us. His article is far more coherent than this one, and he’s right. How often do we see cafes or carriages full of people staring at their screens? I take a train to work at the same time as scores of secondary school kids. Almost all of them are almost always on phones. And again, I teach in a college — last term, the network server died (there was an incident involving paint) and we went two days without internet access. Most of my students were climbing up the walls. So that’s the Western world, that’s modern life — right? Evolve or die. And that’s okay. I think I’m happier as a dinosaur.
A few years ago, the college gave me an iPad to improve the use of technology in my teaching. It was a nice idea, but it didn’t actually happen. The single biggest impact on my life was the sudden impossibility of escaping work. My colleagues and I regularly sent work messages at 10 or 11 or midnight. My cat Remus is a gigantic soaring arsehole, but I was delighted when he knocked my iPad off the sofa a month or so ago, because now the screen is broken. I genuinely miss 80 Days, but in return I’ve recovered hours of my life. I’ve come to relish the moments without wifi, without a phone signal, those moments when we are offline, like it or not — it’s one of the reasons I love the Hebrides. I use Freedom when I’m writing, and I get most of my real work done while it’s in action.
There was a study, a few years ago, that showed how people modified their real-life behaviour in order to gain better online approval (can’t find the link, sorry). Another study suggested that taking a photo actually reduced the photographer’s memory and perception of the moment. It’s nothing new to say that these technologies are becoming filters that we can’t escape.
Another sidestep — on Wednesday, Mon and I went to watch Frightened Rabbit in Manchester Cathedral. It was our first night out since Indy was born. The band were magnificent, but the audience were not so good, and I lost count of the glow of smartphone screens. They made a constellation of the crowd. I don’t go to many gigs these days, so maybe this is how things are, but it seemed to me that a lot of people were at the gig to tell people they were at the gig, rather than to see the actual band.
I know I sound like a scared old man. And I’m not blind to the irony of posting this online. The internet and these technologies have brought us wonders. Email gives me an online book group with friends I’d otherwise meet once or twice a year at best, and that book group got me reading again. Thanks to Facebook, my brother gets to see more of Dora and Indy than he would in real life. I can follow the antics of my cousin Ali in Antarctica. I’ve applied for jobs online, and solved technical crises while editing my films — won competitions, promoted my books, discovered scores of extraordinary things. I first met Mon in 2000, when the internet was new and odd and easy to turn off — but without the internet, we wouldn’t have discovered each other again in 2008, and we wouldn’t have started going out.
So yes, of course, the internet saturates my life too, and I’m not trying to take a moral high ground. There are still times, lost in strange cities — and all cities are strange — that I want the safety of Maps. There are many occasions when I’m aching for a camera, walking to work, when the sun casts fire through the fog, and all the world is aflame — or when I need a number, or directions. But look — even now, as I write, I’m curating my own image in how I shape this article, how I pick my words. I very seldom go to cities. Most of the photos I’d take would not be of foxfire. I prefer real maps to the pulse of a tracker, talking to itself.
I know this is confused and contradictory. I’ve spent 1,500 words discussing my quiet worries about technology. I’ve used technology to write it and technology to share it. I am painfully aware of this, and I have no solution, other than an instinct that we needn’t even stop and think — so much as stop, for a while, for a while.