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.

2 thoughts on “iOS SOS

  1. All so true. Our pesky iPhones and the like drive us to distraction! It’s got so bad on my part that after the initial shock of realising my dear little one had dropped my phone in a bubbly bath I spent a week mildly relieved to take a break while my iPhone got fixed.
    A great piece! X


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s