When I was a child I was so excited when our first telephone was installed. A black Bakelite (you see them in 1950s films) and we even had a fancy new piece of furniture – the telephone table – for it to reside on. Excitement turned to disappointment as first, I didn't know many people who had a telephone, and second, I was banned from using it anyway. "It's for emergencies." Then my best friend got a phone and the desire to use this new technology led me into illicit phone tapping from the local phone box. The frisson of fear that I would get caught and arrested wasn’t sufficient to curb my wish to use this alluring new technology and a lifelong addiction to communicating across the ether was established.
Fast forward 55 years and I am on holiday reading, “The Fourth Dimension” by Laurence Scott and I take pause to consider how the extent of my connectivity today would have been beyond the imagining of my now 30 years dead mother – although she would be pleased to know there is still the option to call 999 with no credit on a mobile. Today, like most people I know, I carry around a mini-computer which has the same power as those roomfuls of giants that first put men on the moon almost fifty years ago. And through the power of my phone, I live my life in many places at once as my actual body moves through the physical space and my virtual body navigates digital-sphere. Sometimes disconnecting is a problem.
Today, my teenage yearning to talk on the phone has gone. I rarely use my phone to exercise my vocal chords – all those free minutes never used – but what a cacophony of silent noise emanates from my finger-tips, as I go about my digitalised life. Each day I am bombarded with information as campaigns I’ve endorsed update or exhort me; good causes I’ve donated to thank me and ask for more. Alongside this is the constant popping up of unsought communication delivered by invisible algorithms that track and target me. My consumer life ambushes me with notifications of sales or bargains from retailers I have patronised, flights I shouldn’t miss, places I could visit, birthday greetings and 2 for 1 invitations from restaurants I've frequented. The organisations I belong to who invite me to events, tell me how I can get more involved as they compete for my time or my money. My conscience and self-perception as an aspiring good person, means I hesitate to swipe away good causes: disappearing forests, melting ice caps, expanding deserts, polluted air and the impact of environmental degradation on fauna: the bees, tigers, elephants, polar bears, orang-utans and other animals I’ve never even heard of. I sign the petitions, donate and momentarily feel a sense of agency before moving on.
My mini-computer confers global citizenship on me and I like that. One minute I'm protesting treatment of refugees in Australia, the next supporting Native Americans fighting for their land, registering dismay at the behaviour of Spanish policemen and Donald Trump with an angry face emoji. I 'like' on Corbyn supporters and remainers and Momentum and Bernie Saunders and Palestinian hunger strikers and those campaigning for abortion rights in Ireland or gay rights in Australia. Online my white, middle class British identity allows me to proclaim my anti-capitalist, pro-socialist stance and face no fear of arrest. I swallow the irony of capitalism fuelling the digital revolution where algorithms check what I'm doing and adverts linked to my online activity in one virtual space pop-up on another; where the big brother of capitalism is always watching.
And each day I get things done on-line. I both love and hate email. I definitely love WhatsApp which I reassure myself is encrypted both ends and is therefore a secure way of communicating, especially if you fear surveillance when travelling to countries you have campaigned against online. It’s where my children and I communicate and achieve things such as planning our Christmas together with the help of that other loved App: Airbnb. And although we are not face-to-face, we feel connected. I love the ease of booking a holiday online, and the ease of sorting out the air and rail travel and car hire that accompanies it, although I do spare a fleeting thought for all the redundant travel agents. And I love the Doodlepoll that makes coordination of meetings and events so easy. I love podcasts and catch-up, Netflix and iplayer. And I love the Apps that start and keep you running, or practising yoga or pilates, teaches you Tai Chi or sets you walking challenges.
And I love how the internet helps those who may not have the physical capacity to interact with people in the real world, but can connect with like-minded others. Who can share with fellow sufferers of a debilitating illness; can enter chat rooms and chat, although that clearly has a downside, every silver lining has a cloud. I love that I can learn new things from the best universities in the world through FutureLab, or learn practical skills through online step-by-step demonstrations of how to quilt, paint, write, build, cook – you name it and YouTube has already thought of it. And you can stop, rewind and repeat as often as you need to tailor learning to your own pace. Wherever and whoever we are we can find communities so we don't feel alone. And despite common rhetoric, this is not just for the young. I know a number of people in their 80s who have been liberated by their iPad, who tell me being alone is not the same as being lonely. Who spend happy hours copying old photos to send to family members scattered all over the world and can Skype with a sister in America and a son in Saudi, listen to the Archers before they go to sleep and plan a journey on GoogleMap before they get up.
In my retirement, like many of my age and demographic, I travel, taking both my actual, and my virtual body with me. This week I am in Portugal, but through my fingertips I’ve connected with North and South America, with India, South Africa and Australia, Bangladesh, Sweden, Finland, Palestine, Israel, Germany, Belgium. My actual body this year has moved between Swansea and Oxford, London and the Wye valley, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Birmingham and Fareham. And in Wales, to Hay-on-Wye, Rosslare, Laugharne, Cardiff, Cardigan, Criccieth. And to Europe – Paris, Dublin and Madrid, Portugal, Madeira (twice) and further afield to Israel and Palestine and Moscow and St Petersburg. The connectivity is breathe-taking, and sometimes disorientating.
And I engage with strangers online. I have corresponded with Airbnb people I've never met even though I've stayed in their homes. Some hosts have shared too much and some have scooped me up and cared for me like family when I was ill. I have shared people’s homes and been spared the embarrassment of money changing hands so it almost feels like friends. I have been reassured by the trust I am prepared to give to strangers as I enter their homes and sleep in their beds. And such trust has been reciprocated in unexpected kindnesses I would never expect from a hotel or guest-house. I have been picked up from rail stations on several occasions by Airbnb hosts when travel arrangements have let me down. Provided with Lemsip and honey when arriving with an unexpected chest infection. Only today an Airbnb host offered to bring my husband’s left behind medication from his place to our place – a 45 minute journey. And I am a good guest. I behave well and give good feedback which is reciprocated by my hosts. Lots of virtual 'likes' to keep everybody happy. Airbnb creates a mirage of intimacy between strangers as we vie to be the best guests or the most sought-after hosts. It was hard not to feel disappointed after so many exchanges with Jose when I learned I would pick up the key to his apartment from the local café and leave them in his postbox when I left. Just a commercial transaction after all – emoji sad face.
And through my phone my voiceless actions convince me I’m communicating with friends and acquaintances and those I shall never meet. I feel compelled to share with my friends: things to make them laugh or feel good as well as asking them to endorse my political predilections by signing petitions or endorsing my outrage by commenting on news items; to recommend films and books, exhibitions and restaurants. It feels like I’m part of a huge community, no matter how ephemeral.
Online I’ve crowd-sourced and kick-started, sponsored and been sponsored. I've joined protests both digitally and physically. And in the Twittersphere I've been outraged by trolls, dismayed by politicians, astounded by the aggression and venom, and uplifted by the retweets. I keep a record of my reading on Goodreads and wish I could find a site to keep track of my film watching, and the theatre come to think of it. Is this wish to categorise and organise an obsession I wonder.
And although each day I walk alone, it is not a solitary experience. Depending on my mood and the length of the walk, the Downloads on my phone allow me to be accompanied by Jane Garvey or Sam Harris, Bitch Media or TedTalks, Politics Weekly, This American Life or Laurie Taylor. Simultaneously my phone tracks my routes through ‘Map my Walk’ and counts my steps through Fitbit, which also monitors my sleep and my heart beat. Three times a week ‘From couch to 5K’ is helping me at 67, become a runner.
My fingers do the talking to dozens of friends online, but never face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice and I don’t even know if they are listening. My fragility is revealed by my pleasure when friends 'share' or ‘like’ a post. I feel less alone when friends show they think the same about the scourge of plastics or the idiocy of Trump; who also support wind power, solar power and Jeremy Corbin or mourn the passing of such greats as Tom Petty. I loved it this week when my friends shared the joy I felt when I saw the Coventry drummers protesting outside the Tory party conference: 'made me cry'; Like, like, like. Smiley emoji. Thumbs up. Hearts, hearts, hearts. And the warm feelings when so many send birthday greetings, vying to say something original or witty.
And of course there are the downsides, every online action has the spectre of guilt accompanying it. Am I spending too much time online, shouldn’t I be doing something more productive, am I addicted? And I feel better when I remember that my mother thought reading would ruin my eyesight and my father regarding lying in bed and reading a novel as ‘doing nothing’. Moral panics accompany any new technology and that included books back in the day. Remember the fear that text-ease would destroy the young's capacity to write 'proper sentences'? The exact opposite has happened in the online sphere. Our sentences are out there for the world to see and are subject to the spelling and grammar panopticon least we are publically called out for our errors or lack of clarity. And with so much competing stuff out there we try to be wittier, more engaging and clever to get attention.
And if I’m not online I’m wondering if people have responded to my threads, the warp and weft of tension when you realise you have 'over-shared' and friendships are damaged or even curtailed. The narratives I’ve concocted to try and understand silences when I know someone has 'seen' my message and not responded. Finding out about the death of friends online and wondering who will be responsible for shutting down my Facebook page after I’ve died and the immortality I might gain from the impossibility of removing all trace of my online presence.
And the downside when you meet up with friends in the flesh to find all your catch-up news has already been caught. So each get-together becomes not ‘a telling’ but a ‘re-minding’ as we prefix our news with 'you probably saw this online' but ‘let me remind you anyway'. The online community has certainly stretched our definitions of what a friend is. I have friends I only connect with by text or phone, who don't use social media and they seem quite remote to me at times. They are different from the friends I see regularly on and offline, and from friends who only know me through an online presence and yet I might interact with them several times a week. And I wonder how many of the friends I have on FB see my posts but never say anything until one day they share a post that tells me they are watching. 'Why that post?' I wonder. Or those who when you meet up tell you how they love following all your travels and you never knew they were watching. And those who de-friend you and you never find out why.
And that brings me to the online phenomena of the Blog that this little piece is destined to become. Everyone can be an author online. We can all narratise our life experiences for all to see and this can revolutionise our understanding of each other. Is there a topic for which there isn’t a blog, people talk about their mental health, struggles with terminal illness, coping with disability, with motherhood, bereavement, birth and death, misogyny, surrogacy and so on and on. The auto-biographical blog narrated online gives us the chance to empathise and feel compassion for a stranger as we would for a character in a novel; such accounts of lives are an extension of literature that can enlarge our world view and broaden our moral engagement as we get insight into other lives. And in the blogosphere I am a producer as well as a consumer. I use writing to try and make sense of things and knowing I'm going to post my thoughts online means I am careful to write coherently. I don’t check for views and likes, it doesn't matter (much) if anyone is listening. It is my own homage to mindfulness, a chance to stop the online chatter to mull things over.
Much of my online life brings pleasure that is always tinged with guilt, like bingeing on Netflix. That slight sense of unease that all my online activity is becoming an addiction. I love it and am definitely enriched by it, but I fear it as well. My day begins and ends online. It is the place I keep my memories. FB tells me exactly where I was on this day a year ago back to 2009. I can track my emails to check what I said and when. Social media is our agora where we consume politics and speech-make. Where we pursue the age-old struggle to understand what makes a good life. And it actually doesn't feel shallow – it feels liberating and creative.