We often read pitying comments from politicians about the stubborn ten per cent of the population that still has no interest in taking-up the internet, the result more of ignorance, it’s implied, than lack of opportunity. The demographic of the dispossessed tends towards the upper end of the age range, I’d guess. My 85-year-old mum’s been ‘thinking about’ getting a laptop, although she doesn’t exactly know why, or what one is, as she is still working, but without benefit of increasingly vital communications technology (she is certainly struggling to master answering the phone) and in need of remote shopping facilities; while she is bombarded daily with advertising messages dangling pretty boxes in front of her, containing incomprehensible new worlds to which she feels she is denied entry. I discussed this ambition with her the other day, and she said the main reason she hadn’t wanted to have a computer was because of all that pornography, that would come flooding into her home. She reminded me of James Thurber, the American humorist, whose aunt feared that if there were no bulb in the socket, electricity might leak from the ceiling. I didn’t mention it was the only reason most people bought an internet package in the first place.
My access to the wondrous worldwide web is in fact prohibited by BT’s inability to deliver a signal reliably and in sufficient strength down my rustic telephone line, but I’d guess I feature in the ten per cent, more probably because I don’t actually own a computer. And because I’m over 60 – good God, is that the time? – I’d maybe attract the age-related thing as well: ‘poor old bloke, the world has passed him by’. Quickly qualified by: ‘of course, plenty of people in their eighties are using Skype (that digital Zimmer frame!) to keep in touch with their grandchildren, and such’. No reason, then, why I as a mere stripling shouldn’t be dragooned into attending a compulsory Introduction to Computing class at night school, and shown The Light.
Actually, I’m not a complete techno-buffoon. While I can remember using manual typewriters and a tickertape machine to output the news, we were employing computers at work by the mid-eighties. We had a mini-mainframe system, that allowed the management to keep tabs on everybody. One of my first advertising clients was Victor Technologies, who had been bought out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy inCaliforniaby a Swedish company and were relaunching the famous 16-bit desktop that their founder, Chuck Peddle, had invented in his garage in 1982, long before IBM got hold of it, the Sirius. Unfortunately, another company had acquired the brand name, so we didn’t sell many. For £2500, in them days you could buy a desktop machine with 15Kb of RAM and a 2Mb hard drive. My keyring now has a 2Gb memory, more than my own brain.
And that’s been the problem. As the technology has evolved, my interest in it seems to have waned. When I saw Steve Jobs demonstrating the iPad, I honestly thought he’d achieved his C5 moment, although I had reckoned without the legions of idiots who would buy anything with an Apple logo on it, even a copy of the Beatles’ white album. I took a course to upgrade my IT skills in 2003, it added £10 to the Jobseeker’s Allowance, and found it so uninspiring that, by the time it finished a year later, I realised I knew less about computers than I had when I started. The world of gizmos had moved on. Soon, I began to realise that all whizzo technological developments had the same numbing effect on me: I was going techno-blind. My few remaining flesh-friends were tweeting with the latest Blackberries and i-whatsits, while I was still using my old Motorola clamshell to make phone calls. Feeling more like an Elderberry, I acquired an upgrade, only to find every time it rings that it’s been videoing the inside of my pocket. This is progress, a phone that sets off your car immobiliser when you key Send? Plus, I usually know where I am in the world, and where I am going. GPS was no compensation for only a 2Mbp camera.
Just yesterday, I asked to borrow a friend’s digital recorder, as I wanted to send a song to my loved one on her birthday. He made a few magic passes over it, and sent me off with the time-hallowed phrase: ‘it’s all set-up, just press this button.’ I’m still wondering how you switch it on, I daren’t ask him. And to think I used to work in audiovisual production. My daughter is off to America in a few days, and I still haven’t been able to program my phone to receive emails. She’s the only person I know who can set it up. She also manages my ringtone requests, although I am noticing more and more that people on trains are reverting to the simple, reassuring sound of an old-fashioned Alexander Graham bell.
I can’t quite describe the condition, it’s not a phobia, it’s not advancing senility, it’s just a sense that I’m looking at this thing down the wrong end of the telescope. As the technology advances, it seems to be receding, both in terms of its importance to me, and its accessibility – which, owing to the sheer complexity of convergence, is now virtually zero. Instead of making it easier, industry designers are frantically pursuing niche users at the expense of those of us who fail to see the humour in concealed multifunction switches and non-compatible charging units, whose predecessors proliferate uselessly in our dresser drawers. The fact is, people can still function quite nicely without it. We ten-percenters may even enjoy a better quality of life, as we do not spend half our time ‘accessing media’, as a recent report suggested the other 90 per cent of the population distractedly does. To get from global village to collective unconscious in a generation seems like too much progress, somehow.