W and I have just returned from a few days at a Caravan Club campsite a few miles outside London, less than an hour’s drive from home. Due largely to various family and health reasons – along with a major operation of mine,which I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog – it’s the first time in two years that we’ve done one of those trips – the sort of thing we used to do regularly and which took us to various parts of the country.
But now, as we seem to have got our lives back in at least some sort of order, we thought it time to get into the camper van again and give ourselves a break. It was wonderful! To awake in the morning to the sound of the wind in the trees; to eat breakfast watching two blackbirds, male and female, pecking around in the grass only metres from us; to sip a whisky as you watch the sun, seen through a dappling curtain of leaves, slowly reddening as it dips to the horizon, throwing hugely elongated shadows along the grass – all that is a reconnection with life – real life. You feel in it your gut and in your soul. And you come away recharged, reinvigorated – and settled.
On our second day, we made a trip to a nature reserve we’d visited a number of times in the past. There is a big lake there – ‘big’ as far as UK lakes go, anyway! – which is used as a base by a sailing club. The premises of this club seem to be little more than a large prefabricated building in which there are showers, changing rooms – and a little cafe which is open to the public – in this case, us – W and myself.
It turned out to be one of those quite unexpected and fascinating peeps into other people’s worlds. In a rather bleak, white-painted little room overlooking the lake, we sat at an aluminium table eating excellent bacon rolls – cooked for us almost as a favour (they didn’t officially sell food to the public on weekdays) by a very helpful young man who seemed to wield some sort of authority in the kitchen. While we ate, we watched the comings and goings of whole tribes of young people, male, female and no doubt anything in between, aged from about ten to early twenties as they came in from sailing on the lake, soaking wet (it was raining) with their instructors. Despite their recent exertions, they were neither boisterous nor particularly excitable; instead, they all exuded that sort of quietly contained excitement that comes not so much from having done something hugely ‘Wow!’ dramatic as having done something that has touched their inner selves.
The only other members of the public in the cafe were a woman working on a laptop while she waited for her young sailor son, and a much older woman, who sat at a table in a corner on the far side of an empty cold drinks cabinet. With her were two little girls (not part of the sailing groups) of whom she took no notice whatever unless one of other of them made some remark about her loud enough for her to hear, or she caught a glimpse of the faces they pulled at her. And even then, she looked up and barked at them only for the few seconds she could spare to be parted from her smartphone. That’s what had her in thrall. Fingers swiping, poking, prodding, she was consumed by it. For the whole time we were there – about forty-five minutes – she hardly looked up from it.
It was a bizarre exhibition. And a bit unsettling. But although it was maybe a bit extreme, I guess it’s not uncommon. A short while ago, on the way from my own flat to my son’s via the London Overground, eight of the eleven people – ages ranging I’d guess from twenties to sixties – sitting in close proximity to me were likewise buried in their smartphones. One or two were no doubt doing something relatively important – like checking emails. But as most of the others had heads bent (some with ear-buds in ears), fingers a-picking and a-swiping for virtually the entire twenty minutes I was on the train, I doubt they were doing anything more important than playing games, reading on Facebook of someone’s trouble opening the cornflakes packet that morning, or checking a selfie on Instagram.
And outside the windows of the train there was a world happening. Clouds going by, trees, hedges, houses, people. Wake up! You’ve never seen this day before. And it won’t come back, either.
In a programme on the radio the other day, the interviewer asked this man – in his late twenties/early thirties – how often in a day he checked his smartphone. ‘Oh,’ he replied. ‘Don’t really know. A lot. Definitely a lot.’ The interviewer then asked him when would normally be the first time in a day that he would check it. ‘Soon as I’m awake.’ replied the man. ‘It’s the first thing I do.’ Then added, ‘And probably the last thing at night too.’
So his whole day is enclosed, book-ended by the contents of his smartphone. Ouch. Consisting of what? – casual observations of friends, acquaintances, opinions of opinion-formers, journalists, politicians, pornographers, mopings of the tired, the bored, the lovelorn, titillaters, freaks and weirdos, the sad and lonely, detailed cinema listings, train and bus times, the prices of the latest heart-rate monitors and every bizarre shade and level in between. And each minuscule detail of his browsing, along with every byte of his own personal input to this cornucopia of mostly drivel will be checked, traced, sifted through, analysed and manipulated by mammoth commercial corporations who do so, not out of philanthropy, but out of the simple desire to make money out of him. Which they do with startling efficiency. Ouch!
What does a daily dose of all that do to the psyche of the smartphone junkie, man or woman? Where has their real world gone? The disconnect between that real world which holds in its embrace their own natural selves and the specious role into which they are being so subtly moulded can only add more stress to all the other work, financial and domestic stresses the modern world – God help us – produces. And to our shame, we’re even allowing our children and young people to drift into a similar neverland where their own natural young instincts are commandeered and subverted by those same multinational mammoths. If we are not careful – and we show little sign of it – real life for those young people – the life to which they aspire – will come to be thought of as existing at some further end of a virtual signal. And maybe many think that way even now.
And now we’re creating robots. Humanoid robots. Ones who can book us into a hotel; ones who will show us to our rooms; ones who can diagnose our minor ailments; ones who can reason; ones we can discuss with; ones we can flirt and have sex with.
This is borderline insanity. The sign of a society taking leave of its senses and abandoning its self-respect. The barbarians are quietly massing at the gates.
And outside the window, the day goes on, the birds sing, ants scurry, the sap rises in the plants and the trees, the seasons come and they go, the clouds drift by and if you’re lucky, the sun shines. As darkness falls, W and I draw the curtains over the windows, unroll the sleeping bags and retire. There may come the last piping call of a bird; a gentle stirring of the leaves on the surrounding trees; even the weary chatter of the magpie who’s been strutting around all day; and if we’re lucky, there could be a parting of the clouds to reveal, visible through the small skylight in the roof, a pallid moon to light us to sleep.