Saturday, August 04, 2012

List of the Month - Rejecting the 'modern'

One of the things about being away from one's homeland for so long - haven't lived here for ten years, haven't even visited in three - is that it brings home especially forcefully how much things have changed in the last decade or so. Almost everyone, even my Luddite friend The Bookbinder, now has a 'smartphone' (with the result that it now seems to be impossible to buy pay-as-you-go credit for calls only; all the credit plans are based on megabytes of Internet usage, with a certain number of calls and/or text messages thrown in for 'free' - which actually makes things very economical for me). Everyone now has a multi-channel digital TV package and a flat screen. Though no-one I know in the UK uses Twitter, amongst the younger generation and in the media it seems to have become quite important. And so on.

I continue to get by quite happily without any of this stuff. And I think I always will do. I do not see any of these things as genuine improvements to modern life. Their supposed advantages are trivial, superfluous - and offset by their more negative consequences.

So, for the new 'List of the Month', here are the...

Innovations I will never embrace

Personal Stereos
I did once have one of the early Sony Walkman cassette players. I took it on my round-the-world backpacking trip in the '90s, as the only means of giving myself some access to music (though mostly via the radio; I only brought 4 or 5 tapes with me). And I wouldn't usually take it out with me: I didn't feel the need, and was afraid of losing it. I just kept it in my room, to listen to occasionally before turning in for the night. Even when I was doing a lot of Greyhound journeys in the States, I found I didn't want to try to listen to music while travelling: there was far too much else to pay attention to. The technology, I suppose has got better now: earphones do a more thorough job of blocking out ambient noise and minimizing the bleed-out of their own noise into the surrounding environment. But these continue to be serious problems: the tinny buzz (at best) emanating from personal stereo earphones can be a huge annoyance to anyone else in the immediate vicinity; and the sound quality for the user is fairly abysmal (a problem compounded by the vogue for digital downloading and file compression: MP4 etc. doesn't even sound as good as a cassette, and cassettes were pretty dreadful). But quite apart from the fact that it's a lousy music experience and potentially irritating for bystanders, it's the fundamentally anti-social nature of personal stereo use which most offends me - WHY are you making this (partial, futile) attempt to isolate yourself from the rest of humanity and from the world around you?? The big problem with this - as has been emphatically demonstrated with mobile phone use by drivers - is that when you're not listening to the world around you, you're not paying attention to it with your other senses either: people who use personal stereos when cycling or walking down the street fully deserve to become road death statistics.

I really like the recent counterpart coinage 'dumbphone'. I am proud to be a 'dumbphone' user! It is quite bad enough that the ubiquity of mobile phones now tempts us to take or make calls (or, even worse, use SMS) when we're out in company; the additional allure of the Internet is altogether too much for most people to deal with. I am too enslaved by the Internet as it is; when I go out, I want to leave it behind. I suppose having access to my e-mail while out and about might occasionally be "convenient", but it's something I'm happy to get by without. The essence of e-mail is the trade-off between time-lag in reply (you have to accept that people might not see it straight away, might not be able to respond for a while, might not deal with your message until the next working day) and the ability to produce a more considered and more substantial response. You can't reply properly to e-mail on a phone anyway (when Blackberries first broke big 8 or 10 years ago, I could tell which of my friends had got them because they stopped replying to e-mail [usually without noticing that they had done so!]); if you need a short but quick response, use SMS instead. What else is a 'smartphone' supposedly good for? I came across an 'app' in the States recently that helped you locate taxis; a lot of people seemed to find that quite useful (in a locale where taxis were not thick on the ground; it wouldn't apply in a major city), but... a well-run taxi despatcher ought to be able to give you the same information in a phone call - where is the real improvement in your service experience? I suppose map services might be quite useful sometimes; but I have a long-standing affection for paper maps; and I figure that if ever I'm really lost, it's likely to be out in the wilderness where there's no phone reception anyway. That gizmo that identifies snatches of music for you can be quite fun too, but... it does cut short the jocular arguments about what the song might have been, and encourages the atrophy of your memory; and if a song really gets under your skin that much, a snatch of the lyric will enable you to identify it on the Internet when you get back home. The main impact of smartphones has been to truncate conversations by knee-jerk resort to Internet research whenever somebody raises a point of which they are uncertain or which is doubted by others - this is tiresome and anti-social. I tolerated this as an amusing and occasionally "useful" novelty for a while, but now I will have no part of it.

Tablet computers
An awkward and pointless half-way house between smartphones and personal computers: a little too large to be truly convenient and portable and not offering any significant advantage over an Internet-capable phone, but far less useful than a not-much-bigger notebook computer. I use a computer primarily for writing, and a tablet is bugger-all use there. Even doing Internet searches is a pain-in-the-arse on those touch-screen keyboards. People are buying tablets because they're 'cool', not because they're actually any bloody use for anything.

I have ranted about this before. Reading a book off a screen is an irksome and unsatisfying experience, and probably very bad for the eyes. The tactile qualities of a book make reading a far more ritualistic and immersive experience. Moreover, as with all of these personal electronic devices above, an e-reader is rather too easy to lose (or tempting to steal), and rather a lot of hassle and expense to replace. (I don't think I've ever lost a book. The few times when I have carelessly left one behind in a bar or a restaurant, it's been handed in and I've been able to recover it the next day. I doubt if that often happens with an abandoned Kindle.)

Multi-channel TV
I suppose we don't have any alternative these days - other than to voluntarily restrict ourselves to the handful of channels we grew up with (this is pretty much what I do in the UK; although BBC 4 and a few of the Sky channels also have some worthwhile programmes), or to forego television altogether (which I have mostly done during my years of exile in China, and even during much of the '90s in the UK). The existence of multiple channels today seems to mean that we must suffer endless repeats or reality shows, and that at least 80% of the offerings at any one time will be complete SHITE. On-screen menus are awkward to navigate, making it difficult - sometimes impossible - to find a programme you might want amid the morass of dross. And we've lost the sense of community that TV fostered when it was an almost universally shared experience. I miss that.

I've ranted about this before as well. Of course, the preening narcissism and the mind-numbing inconsequentiality of Twitter and its ilk are odious enough, but what really bugs the crap out of me about this fatuous craze is that many of its converts become such zealous cultists about it that they - unthinkingly - renounce all other forms of communication, and create their own little closed community of tweeters, ignoring former friends who decline to sign up to the service.

Facebook et al
Not so much 'social networking' as 'anti-social non-networking'. The narcissistic urge is obviously a very common and powerful human foible, but I still find it amazing that the idea of parading trivial details of your life on a public website (for the convenience of stalkers and burglars) could ever have struck anyone as a worthwhile idea. I deplore the impersonalizing tendency of such communication, that it is blanket transmission to an unknown audience rather than a series of targeted, thoughtful, purposeful one-to-one interactions - which is what we ought to be cultivating in our social relations. I am gratified that so many business analysts these days are starting to suggest that the writing could be on the wall for Facebook; perhaps my prophecy of its collapse a few years ago will indeed be borne out before the end of this decade. I sincerely hope so.

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