My daughter rolls her eyes whenever I begin my stories of woe. “Tell the one about how you walked to school alone,” she says. “And how you used to swim outside, like in a pond. With frogs in it!”
“You know, darling. It wasn’t so long ago. And it wasn’t such a hardship either. There was actually something quite pleasant about, say, getting lost as you walked in a city, without immediately resorting to Google Maps.”
And so it goes. But I’ve been trying to look at the problem from a new angle, and I keep coming back to the same truth: life is better. One is almost programmed, if over 35, to recall the superior days of a life less needy, the rich rewards of having to try and having to do without. But the actual truth is that my childhood would have been greatly, no, infinitely, improved, if only I’d had a smartphone.
I mean, how could I ever pretend life was even half tolerable in the 1970s? I grew up in a world where people did mental arithmetic just to fill the time.
I’ve come fully round to time-saving apps. I’ve become addicted to the luxury of clicking through for just about everything I need.
Yesterday morning, for example, I realised I needed to know something about a distant relative for a book I’m writing. I’m old enough to remember when one had to go to libraries, then scroll for hours through hard-to-read microfiche and take notes. I wrote a whole book that way, my first, and it took forever and it didn’t add much to most of the paragraphs.
Yesterday, I had the information from an archive website in about 20 minutes. Then I ordered a car from Uber to take me to teach a class. I emailed my notes to my office computer from the car, dealt with a dozen emails and read a review of a restaurant I was going to that evening.
Has something gone out of my experience of life by ordering all the shopping online rather than by pushing a trolley around a supermarket for an hour and a half? Yes. A pain in my backside has been relieved. It is all now done by a series of small, familiar flutterings over the keyboard, which I can do at my leisure, any time of day or night, without running into hundreds of people who are being similarly tortured by their own basic needs.
I have always liked music and the sheer luxury of having a particular recording when you want to hear it, but nothing in my long years of buying records can beat Spotify.
I’ve heard many a nostalgist say there was something more, well, effortful, and therefore poetic, in the old system of walking for ages to a record shop. People become addicted to the weights and measures of their own experience. But we can’t become hostages to the romantic notion that the past is always a better country.
There will, of course, always be people who feel alienated by a new thing, and there might be a compelling argument to suggest all this availability is merely a high-speed way of filling a spiritual gap in our lives. Yet I can assure you there was no lack of spiritual gap in the lives of people living in small towns in 1982. It was just a lot harder to bridge that gap. We used to wait for years for a particular film to come on TV. One had practically to join a cult in order to share a passionate interest.
Communication was usually a stab in the dark. You might find someone to talk to about your favourite book, but more likely you wouldn’t, unless you moved to New York.
Every day now there’s something new to replace the old way of doing a crucial thing that was hard to do. Is it the middle of the night and you live in Idaho and you want to talk to someone about your roses? Is it Christmas Eve in Rome and you want to know where to hear some music and light a candle?
Don’t tell me the spiritual life is over. In many ways it’s only just begun. Technology is not turning us into digits or blank consumers, into people who hate community.
Instead, there is evidence that the improvements are making us more democratic, more aware of the planet, more interested in the experience of people who aren’t us. It’s also pressing us to question what it means to have life so easy, when billions do not.
For me, life did not become more complex with technology, it became more amenable. And what a supreme luxury it is, being able to experience nowadays your own reach in the world, knowing that there truly is no backwater, except, of course, the one you happily remember from the simple life of yore.
My daughter was right to laugh. Because what she was hearing was a hint of vanity and a note of pride in my stories of the unimproved life. In point of fact, we burned with the desire to get out, to meet people, to find our voices.
My favourite record when I was a teenager, trapped in a suburban corner of old Europe, was ‘How Soon Is Now?’ by the Smiths. I had taken a bus and a train and walked for miles to buy the record. It told a story about giving yourself up to experience.
I don’t know where the physical record has gone. But the song is right here at the end of my fingertips as I’m typing. In the new, constantly improving world around us, it took me just under 15 seconds to locate it.
Would anyone care to dance?
THE NEW YORK TIMES (November 16, 2014) © 2014 BY ANDREW O’HAGAN. WWW.NYTIMES.COM