Life and the unfolding of history don’t seem to like abiding by our predictions, particularly (and fortunately) our bad ones. From this point of view, we should perhaps consider starting each year with an outlook that a friend of mine in a deep personal crisis suggested to me just before Christmas: Things will turn out well,” she argued, “just not in the way you think.”
It occurred to me that there is no dimension of society in which this thought has been truer than in the way that we communicate with one another. During the past decade there has been a great deal of concern from health experts and others (myself included) about our apparently decreasing ability to experience the here and now. The pace and accessibility of communications meant that you could stand in front of a person but be speaking to someone else miles away all of the time. The alarm bells began ringing: were we becoming social automatons unable to experience what was happening around us and always interested in the next moment and people who were far away?
When social networking online started taking off a la Twitter, things seemed to be getting even worse. People were daily obsessed with entering affectionate one-liners to people they didn’t know and were unlikely ever to meet. Technology seemed to be unraveling the immediate society and happenings around us. Not only that, experts argued (and continue to argue) that our increasing obsession with speedy communications in the virtual world could be undermining our ability to concentrate (and thus make it impossible for us to find any worthy winners of Nobel prizes in the future). In a paper I wrote about the subject of social belonging, I posited that our virtual lives would rob of us of our emotional intelligence because we couldn’t see the people we were communicating with. When my children started becoming interested in mobile telephones I worried, not only because of the possible anti-social consequences, but because I worried about the unknown long-term health consequences of walking around with a mobile phone plastered to your ear.
We still cannot draw any definitive conclusions when it comes to the totality of how our new communications technology is affecting us. My sense is that we never will since it is changing all of the time. Yet when I consider each prediction, I find that we seem to be muddling through. Twitter has got us thinking about the value of ‘the moment’ more than ever. Youngsters don’t tend to hold mobile telephones to their ears, rather they hold them safely away from their heads and use them like typewriters to SMS their friends. Evidence is emerging that virtual life (particularly in the form of games played from time to time) can encourage concentration. Increasingly we see one another on-line and thus are able to see whether the person we are speaking with is wrinkling their nose or smiling. Terms such as ‘the global community’ or the ‘global village’ seem to make more sense than ever. The world doesn’t seem to be coming unglued.
When I set out to use my first mobile phone which to me looked more like a bomb detonation device, I did it with excitement and trepidation. Could this really be a good thing? I could not imagine that fifteen years later, I would be walking around with a wafer-thin device in my pocket that could tell me my schedule, what the weather would be for the next week and how to get in touch with any of my friends in a matter of seconds (without even holding the device to my ear). Things may not turn out the way that you think but quite frequently they seem to turn out.