I hesitate but a little before prating on like an old grandad about the wonders and evils of modern technology. I don’t think I’m especially old-fashioned, fixated on the idea of a bygone Golden Age, Luddite, or even gaga. I had an eclectic education, spending two years at film school learning to operate professional movie cameras, sound, lighting and editing equipment; then ten years working in radio production, followed by another three years’ formal technical education in photography, film and television, obtaining a poor degree (I didn’t deliver a major project, I was already too busy working in the industry). I was even a science fiction book critic! I first started using computers at work in 1985, my first ‘client’ was a computer manufacturer, and as early as 1993 my ad agency was creating commercial web sites. But at the age of 62, I am about ready to give up even trying to understand how to operate the myriad ‘user-friendly’, ‘works from the box’ gadgets on which we are supposed to depend for our practical and social supports. I shall buy an axe, a lumber jacket and take my dog to live in a log cabin in the hills, free from electromagnetism
The difference, just between my 18-month-old Nokia touchscreen mobile, which I hated because it would never do what I told it to do, and the shiny new phone ’With HTC Sense’ , that I have just upgraded to, and found I cannot even start to operate without help from my son, who already has one, is profound and unsettling. The ability to manipulate text and images and virtual buttons on-screen just with the magnetism of your fingers is a paradigm shifter for old bastards like me; the awful thing is, I don’t feel it is for me. I don’t understand it, can’t work out how to use it, what the near-invisible symbols mean, where the starting point is. There is a million times more functionality here than I could or would ever need, imagine needing; I am denied access to it by what I would call my systemic ignorance: in other words, it is not so much the technology that has moved ahead of me, but the different framework within which one has to think, merely to discover a purpose to it. I have my own interface with the world around me, that still just about works and I am comfortable with. Consequently, I will always default to analog methods when new digital technology frustrates me with its laughable, overdesigned complexity, because I already know ‘my’ technology works for and of itself; often faster and more reliably. It is a category error, in my view, to describe those methods as somehow ‘dumb’. Dumb is surely the uncritical dependence on (and unsustainable manufacture and purchase of) evermore complex and unreliable systems to perform evermore trivial functions.
I find the slowness, the overcomplicatedness with which this ‘instantaneous’ new, ‘easy-to-use’ stuff vibrates annoyingly in my clumsy hands, deeply frustrating. I get angry with it, because – for me at least – it doesn’t make sense. On-off buttons, for instance, have a purpose. It was not up to designers to decide on my behalf that they needed a dose of irony. Humiliatingly, I had to ask a teenager to show me how to switch on one phone I had, the on-off button had been disguised as part of the trim. Why, for God’s sake? It’s not as if this stuff works any better. We have an internet, that I am using now, hosting a ‘worldwide web’, capable of virtual light-speed transmission, digitising and cross-referencing virtually all human knowledge, the product of years of application of enormous brainpower to its development; but which wastes hours of my time with its pointless access routines and security protocols; its fragility, its dreariness, its tendency to frustrate your wishes at every turn by withdrawing co-operation, by denying service and refusing instructions, by precociously second-guessing information you are trying to communicate or obtain, without notice or explanation. To my way of thinking, personal computers (I have to include mobile phones as they are really just palmtop computers with wireless connectivity) and the internet make uneasy bedfellows: developed seemingly in parallel rather than holistically, they don’t always work in harmony. Either seems capable of causing the other to malfunction; while the miraculous technologies, the GPS and the touchscreen capabilities, the feats of memory and search, the astonishing graphics, are at the very cliff-edge of known physics and can be relied on to fall off, just when you least want them to.
A weaver of the late C18th, staring with mute hostility and incomprehension at a Jacquard loom, was not so distanced from the new technology as I am from this totally new dimension in communication: or, in my case, non-communication. I do not think I need look very far for a reason for my alienation: this stuff is not being designed for me, but for a new generation of unhesitating uptakers. As an ex-advertising man, I can see a cynical commercial logic to the rapid turnover of only semi-compatible products and their operating systems; to the lack of standardisation across product ranges (drawers full of useless chargers); to the frequent redesigns and ‘upgrades’; to the artificial creation and amoral manipulation, purely for profit, of well-researched and understood user-groups, to the exclusion of what those groups would self-define as ‘Others’, that is to say people(like me!) who are not inside the charmed circle; to the impression given of infinite expandability, infinite abundance, infinite connectivity, that ultimately leads to the covert files of the arm of the global surveillance industry known as Google, the blood-spattered second-world basements of the American Inquisition. It can’t go on, it’s not sustainable, it’s an illusion — but while it does, some people are gaining awesome power over us, and for what? So in ‘the silence of your lonely room’, you can invent, then incessantly jabber away to, imaginary friends? Big Brother is your friend. ‘Like’ him!