WITH THE PLETHORA OF COMMUNICATION TOOLS CONSTANTLY AT OUR FINGERTIPS, HAS IT IMPROVED THE QUALITY OF LIFE?
In my 20s, I hardly ever communicated with my brothers Tom and Gerry. I was living in Jamaica and them in London; and in those days phone calls— if you were lucky enough to have one — were expensive, unintelligible and short:
"Hello Gerry! It's me, Brian! Brian! BRI-AN! Yeah, how are you mate? Everyone here's fine. When you coming down? Bring a carburetor for the bike, brake pads for the car, magazines, records and teabags! Bye!"
Telegrams meant only one thing: somebody dead. The cheaper alternative was air mail letters, and if you were really cheap: sea mail. When I first moved to Jamaica, painfully separated from my older brothers aged 18, the postman was my dearest friend. Every day I would await his arrival with a mixture of apprehension, expectation and hope. He must have a letter for me, it's been ages ... he must. He doesn't. Crushed.
A letter was a welcome bombshell of news from back home. They didn't arrive very often, but when they did you could be assured of being fully updated on every aspect of the sender's life: what they were up to, what other people were up to, plus the really important bits: gossip, rumour and scandal. The best letters were pages and pages of condensed, double-sided handwriting, leaning haphazardly down the length of the page.
Then there were the aerogrammes, letter and stamp in one, the only limitation being space. You would write in tiny handwriting, squeezing in extra lines along the side of the page, to cram it all in. Everybody that is, except Tom. Any letter was infrequent, a letter from Tom was rarer than a pink panther. And short. Once, a letter of his consisted of nine lines — in big loopy handwriting: "Hey Brian, or should I say Prooglums ha ha. Things cool here mate, living in a squat with Steve and Keith Maniac. Bought you a birthday present. An album, Nantucket Sleigh ride by Mountain, brilliant. I'll mail it tomorrow. Tom"
Tom's sent me a record — great! He said he'd mail it the next day, so it should arrive tomorrow. Next day I waited for my friend the postman to come ambling up the street, with a parcel. Finally he bends the corner, sweating in the Kingston heat. He wasn't carrying a parcel, or anything else for that matter, just sailed right on past our house with nary a glance. Crushed. Again. Next day: same thing. Next week. Next month ...
Twenty years, I waited for that damn record. For one hilarious birthday present 20 years hence, I don't know where he managed to find it, but Tom finally presented me with my long-awaited album. And what a load of crap it turned out to be, sadly it didn't improve with age!
Fast forward 20 more years, and I wouldn't have had to wait more than a nanosecond for Tom's promised gift. Click-send-play. When I think of the advances in technology in my own "short" lifetime, it is truly staggering. Starting from the birth of the humble cell phone, an unwieldy brick of a thing when first launched onto the market in the 1980s, we have seen annual geometric increases in the capacity, speed and usefulness of these hand-held devices.
By themselves, cell phones didn't change much; more expensive toys more than essential tools. Then came texting. A game changer. At first, as it cost them nothing, the cell phone companies offered SMS as a free service, a throwaway. Then texting became popular, so naturally they started charging for it. At one point texts were contributing 25 percent to the profits of British cell companies.
One day, in my office at the World Bank in about 1995, we were called to a staff meeting. Todd (or some such), the young office techhie, addressed us.
"Brian, when you want to know what's going on Kenya Airways, Mike's project, what do you do?"
"Well, I'll walk down to Mike's office, and we'll talk. Or we might go down for coffee."
That, we were told, was the problem. That whole process: strolling down the corridor, swapping small talk, going for coffee — that was just unnecessary time, to be added onto my core business at hand: finding out what was happening on Kenya Airways. Wouldn't it be better, more productive, we were told, if, instead of that long tedious process, I could just sit in my office and pass a written message to Mike, instantly, and receive a reply, almost as instantly? And we all answered, unanimously, no it wouldn't. To sit in our cubicles sending messages all day, never leaving, never stretching your legs or taking a breather — nothing could be worse. Despite our underwhelming support, thus was born e-mail. And the rest, as they say ...
I joined Facebook in 2007, at the urging of my children who were living in Jamaica, Canada, Cape Town and London, while I lived in Johannesburg. I found it a great way to keep in touch, especially with photographs. Very soon, like all the other 1.3 billion of us, I became a Facebook junkie. Every morning, the first conscious thing I do is reach for the phone. First to turn off the alarm, then to see how many Facebook, WhatsApp and email messages I've got. If the answer to all that was zero, I'd be crushed; why is everyone ignoring me?
Nowadays I'm in constant contact with family and friends, even friends I don't know. Sometimes, as my Facebook comments might attest, excessively so! Gone are the days when I wondered what was going on in the lives of my far-flung family — I see, hear and read about my five children every waking day. Between WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype, the distance between my family and I has become virtually bridged, almost as if we lived in the same country, instead of five. We "talk" constantly, with all the same laughs, jibes and squabbles as when we lived in the same chaotic, crowded house.
In addition to real communication, as in between human beings, there is the automatic flow of millions of terabytes of data that constantly washes over us via the internet. Remember "the information superhighway"? Although terminology long dead, it is an apt description of the constant barrage of information, opinion and other assorted "facts" that we roll from the 'net. Which has effectively killed off the newspaper, all that's left is the burial.
So, has this explosion in communication improved the quality of my life? Am I a happier, better person, because of this constant barrage of information coming over my Samsung S4 Mini? The answer is an unequivocal yes — and no. Obviously, I enjoy the easy — and free — means of communication which undoubtedly has the beneficial effect of enabling me to be closer to my family. WhatsApp certainly beats my un-friend the postman!
I jokingly call it GGG — Great God Google — much to the annoyance of my daughter who works there, but in truth where would we be without it? Personally and professionally, the internet has made us infinitely more productive people. If information is power then we're all Supermen and women! But are we really? Is the "internet-age Brian" any smarter, wiser and plain better than the Mark 1 version that existed for the first 30-odd years of his life? Not sure about that one!
There is such a thing as information overload, it's like American television: a hundred channels of crap is still crap. Is more crap better than less? It's all very well to have instant access to the internet, but access to what? Considering most of the dross that inhabits the 'net, then you'd have to conclude that less is definitely better. I hate to sound like a fogie, but kids nowadays are becoming like parents of old: couch potatoes. They're losing their motor skills, are crap at sports, and can't write a coherent sentence to save their lives. Get out the house! Play football! Get in trouble!
If, on balance, all this communication has made my life better; is the converse true; was my life worse before the internet? Definitely, absolutely, not. The internet is not like clean water and garbage disposal, if you don't have those there's no two ways about it: your life is worse. But the internet? Life was different, but it wasn't worse, there was no hole in it. In my first year in Jamaica, when I was still missing "home" London, I may have wished I'd had more communication, but that just made the communication I did get all the more appreciated. I'd read letters over again, and kept all of them — until Hurricane Gilbert put paid to such sentimentality.
Did I miss the internet? How could I? I was having too much fun!
S. Brian Samuel
© S. Brian Samuel, September 2015