iOS SOS

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Letter from Uganda, April 1997

I am yet to meet someone who isn’t irritated or frustrated by iOS 10, the recent Apple update. While the Silicon Valley technocrats salivate over the new predictive emojis, advanced fingerprint recognition and new-look email chains, the rest of us miss recording our child’s first steps as we can’t get beyond the home button to access the new-style camera. It is less iOS 10, more iOS 101.

iOS 10 and the issues it spawned are just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that our lives are becoming totally over-technologised. I want to do something simple: communicate with a friend, say, but I have about eight methods of choice of how to do this and the one I never choose is to pick up my phone and call them. My phone isn’t really a phone anymore; it is a device of vast capabilities way beyond my basic understanding (although my children seem to have a good grasp of it). It is a mini-computer, game-centre, TV, diary, camera; it is a portal to the outside world. I am sure Siri would know if a butterfly was flapping its wings in Japan.

Take a break from the online arena at your peril: a few months or years is comparable to decades here. I took a backseat to have children and when I emerged blinking into the virtual sunlight, it had moved on, quite considerably. Everyone seemed to know what a meme, GIF and emoji was and the hashtag was ubiquitous. The sophistication and evolutionary pace of online communication is breathtaking. Where do people learn these things and how do they have time?

I dusted myself off, downloaded 43 App updates and dived in. I was met with an onslaught of information; a relentless bombardment of images, articles, status updates, tweets, messages, videos. I want to go to sleep, the baby will be up in six hours time, but still I keep scrolling through my Facebook feed. I seem to be afflicted by the very modern phenomenon of excess communication. How is it possible to keep up with social media, let alone the rest of your life? There is so much to know these days, but how much of it do I need to know? I would like to read a book, a newspaper, but I spend so long reading other people’s Twitter chats that I have used up all my precious evening time and the Sunday papers (yes, hard copies) remain neatly folded on the coffee table. My husband sits next to me, scrolling on the iPad, on which my browsing history appears as pop-up adverts for shoes, holidays and children’s toys; the exposure of my thought process. Sometimes we favourite each other’s tweets or like each other’s messages. It is an absorbing habit that is difficult to break.

Yes, I have bought into this, both financially and by way of lifestyle, but sometimes I think that I am just the wrong generation: not quite forty, but not twenty either. Born ten years too late for technology to have been a big part of my childhood, I grew up with PacMan and thirty minute Computing classes once a week at school. We went orienteering with a map and a compass, friends were real and not virtual and if we lost them in town on a Saturday afternoon we had to use our initiative to find them again. I used to write letters to my friends, handwritten in ink, with little drawings in the corners. They wrote to me too, when I was abroad or even just at home, and I have kept all of them. The internet was coming into common usage as I was leaving home for university. It was twenty years ago but in today’s terms, I am a dinosaur.

I took out a pen and paper on the underground recently and started to write. “What the hell is she doing?” the carriage-full of people silently enquired, and craned their necks to see what I was writing. I felt like a spy from another era, recording secret notes on my clandestine mission.

If I feel overwhelmed and confused, what about my parent’s generation? When my mother was born in 1947, there were no TV’s at home, war had been announced to the nation eight years’ previously by Neville Chamberlain on the wireless, and apples and blackberries were fruit that went into a crumble. She is 70 next year but she doesn’t think that she is old and to be fair to her, she is grappling admirably with her smart phone and sends regular photos to our family WhatsApp group from far-flung corners of the world. The first time she used a sat-nav she spent the entire motorway journey sat panic-stricken in her Toyota Yaris in the fast lane, no doubt holding up a train of faster cars behind her, as the nice woman kept telling her to ‘keep right’. She didn’t realise that it meant ‘don’t turn off’. My father rarely uses a mobile phone and never texts, as it takes him too long to put all the semi-colons into his perfectly formed sentences. But in some ways, it doesn’t matter if you are 70 or 40; if you grew up thinking that a tablet was a slab of stone or a pill that you ingest, then all your social media skills will be acquired rather than innate and therefore slightly alien.

Most of us, young and old, are embracing this new way of living to such an extent that we can’t function without our preferred technological device by our side at all times, day or night. And I am in absolutely in no doubt about how useful it can be or about how I will return to loving Apple products once I figure out how to work them again. I used to say that of all my possessions I would rush back to save from a house fire, it would be my photo albums; now I would save my Mac, iPad and iPhone. They are a bit like my three children; I couldn’t choose between them (the real children in this scenario are safely sat in the fire engine, playing with the controls). Let’s just hope that the Cupertino innovators put their feet up for a couple of years and let the rest of us enjoy the status quo.

In my more wistful moments, however, I think back to an earlier, more simple age of communication and I find that I miss the traditional hall phone, with its circular numbered dial and the message pad and pencil next to it on the table. I miss lifting the telephone receiver and saying the house phone number: “570882, hello?” I miss being unavailable.

Even the Boss gets the Blues (reflections on the changing nature of stadium gigs)

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Off to see U2’s Zooropa Tour at Wembley Stadium, 1993

So Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography is at the top of the book charts and in it he admits to having suffered from depression for many years. In some ways, it is reassuring to discover that a hugely successful, happily married, multi-millionaire rock idol suffers from his own demons, but in other ways it is faintly disquieting: if he is depressed, what hope do us lesser mortals have?

At a warm and friendly Wembley stadium this summer, Bruce looked to be having the time of his life and perhaps he was, as he writes in his autobiography: “There is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away [and] lets the sun in.” And the crowd looked as if they agreed with him. We came for the music, the dancing, the experience, to remember and to forget. Whether you’re a couple on a rare night away from the children (yup, that was us), an inebriated twenty-something there for the greatest hits, a jacketed corporate type or a die-hard fan sporting a 92-93 tour t-shirt, there is something about the collective unspoken agreement to enjoy yourselves that is a great leveller.

The other thing that we had in common was our ability to illuminate the pitch with the lights of thousands of mobile phones; taking videos, posting Instagram photos and checking in on Facebook. A couple next to me took a smiling selfie, hands in each other’s jeans pockets and then didn’t speak or touch for the three and a half hours that the Boss was on stage. The modern phenomenon of the general public looking down at their phones rather than up at the world around them seems to be no different at a rock concert. Bruce didn’t seem to notice and if he did, he was probably used to it.

Things were different in 1993, when my friends and I went to our first stadium concert to see U2’s Zooropa Tour, back when Wembley had twin towers rather than an arch. We were 15 and my Dad (who I am amazed let his unworldly suburbanite daughter go) took us there and then drove around north-west London until it finished. As someone who is now reliant on a mobile phone to make and change plans of any sort, I have no idea how he found us again, amidst the other 80-odd thousand people. But he did and that was just how life worked those days: we looked around us, talked to each other and didn’t have a panic attack if we couldn’t Whatsapp as there was no 4G.

For Bruce at Wembley, it could have been the early 90’s: the show was him, his guitar, his harmonica and his super-cool, and may I say, also ageing gracefully seven-piece E-Street Band. There was no lighting extravaganza, no professional dancers, no gimmicky props and no need for any of that. In the mass-media digital age, people still came bearing cardboard plaques with song requests and messages for Springsteen: “I got Mary pregnant too…”

But the present day was never far away: during a slow-tempo, guitar solo rendition of Thunder Road, one chap’s attempts to slow-wave a lighter in his hand were met by sniggers from the people around. It wasn’t retro, you could almost hear them thinking, it was just pointless. Why wasn’t he watching the show through the phone of the person in front like the rest of us? All in all, some things have changed but the basics stay the same. The maxims of concert-going, whether you are 15 or 38, remain: take your own loo roll, wear decent shoes that you don’t mind getting sticky, do buy a t-shirt, don’t buy a burger and watch out for the flying bottles of beer. The gathering of souls will do the rest.