There have been several key changes in our history. I think first of the arrival of Roman Britain and the Norman conquest. Then came printing, and the part it played in the Reformation and in the intellectual life of the country. Following that was the establishment of the supremacy of parliament over the sovereign in 1688. But just as important was the change in communication: the penny post and the gradual spread of the telephone. But it would seem that we are already immersed in a new and important phase. This is the smartphone.
For various reasons I have recently been in particularly close contact with the younger members of my family – mainly in their fifties and their twenties. It would seem that without such an instrument I cannot really be said to exist. I have a vivid recent memory of a great granddaughter at her first birthday party watching a telephone throughout her specially prepared meal.
We are talking not so much of a gadget as a way of life. The intensity of the efforts to persuade me to buy such a facility, so that I can be said to belong to society again, tells me that I am in some way culpable for declining my proper connection with other people. I am seen as something like a hermit in my decline to join society in its network of digital connections.
Smartphones can be expensive. I see that you can easily spend £600 on one – and very much more if it is kept in a fashionable cover. I assume that they have become a matter of social display – proclaiming the prosperity and the taste of its owner. They appear to have an infinite range of capacities, and the extent of the range is more important than their actual use. (I will confess to owning a mobile phone, that cost me £15 from Tesco’s, and I still have to ask passers by to dial a number for me. It is of course never switched on but I do occasionally remember to charge it.)
I am not a digital antediluvian. I buy on line, I tax my car on line, I use the internet for a wide range of information from obscure philosophical texts to how to cook an omelette. I use emails in preference to letters. Indeed I started using computers before many of the current enthusiasts were born. Remember Alan Sugar’s Amstrad? But all of these are conveniences: facilitating pedestrian jobs in a more convenient way. They do not threaten the social bonds which hold us together. May we expect a very different future? Perhaps all our communication will be through smartphones – even if we are in the same room. If we occasionally need old fashioned communication some descendant of Amazon Echo will provide for us. (Yes I tested Echo long before it was on the market, I have my private connections.) And, if we need a cuddle, we touch the right key and out comes our robot – prepared to meet whatever need we have. We would of course have to decide what gender we chose to be that day, and what gender we wished our robot to be. We are all hermaphrodites now.
What jolly fun!