Screen slaves will never savour the lush pleasures of the power of now
Memories are made by experiencing them in the moment, not through a digital gadget, says Miriam O'Callaghan
Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30
It is morning in early summer. A Sunday so still, that bells rung 20 seconds before in the towers of Christ Church or St Patrick's peal in the thin, salt air of our suburban garden. At the round glass table, the adults drink coffee from jewel-colour cups. A small boy sucks cold, fluffy milk through a yellow paper straw. His smaller sister, wellington-ed, straw-hatted is eating a cut-up apple at her tiny, green, parasol-ed table set for one. Since its arrival, she likes to dine alone, or as on that morning, in the company of a chimp, purple-tinged in a certain light, soft-snug in a pink preemie romper, her golden eyes lightly scratched, the possessor of a soul.
There are no photos of that morning. No recordings. It exists only in time and memory. But having lived that morning - really lived it - 12 years later, it is possible now to relive it, moment by moment, and do so with every sense. Springy grass; sweet cinnamon on sharp apple; rough stone under rubber flip-flop; smooth cold of the heavy table; smoother warmth of light young skin; the cigarish coffee with its velvet crema seething against teeth; Issey Miyake; Johnson's shampoo; salt damp tamping bare forearms; a tang of fox that arrives on the same breeze as the scattered bronze notes.
In contrast, on holiday this summer, I see families sitting, scrolling around dinner tables, silenced and separated by technology from each other and the moment. Every day I dodge tourists, arms fully-extended, taking in cities, not with their senses, but through the rectangle in their hands which seems to pull them with an irresistible force. As they rush headlong towards another cathedral, another sculpture, another bridge, I expect them to take flight, like Superman, parallel to the cobbles or paving. Throughout, they are oblivious to the sound of the bells; the clink of ice as a waiter carries a tray of Aperol spritz to the elderly customers in the local hairdressers; the belt of setting lotion as he shoulders open the door; the lungful of coffee from the local bar; the cold curve of a 15th-Century drinking fountain under the hand.
No technology can capture the particular breeze on a particular street in a particular city that is not air at all, but according to the locals, the breath of the Devil on your face. Equally, the Eiffel Tower is the Eiffel Tower, regardless of who records it on what. Its power and differentiation are in our fully lived experience of being there
Parents reading will know the hellish experience of watching a Christmas play, or listening to a summer concert trapped behind a phalanx of other parents brandishing technology. In a couple of weeks, a new batch of boys and girls will put on their tiny school uniforms, step into the world of Reception, or in my day, Low Babies. My five-year-old nephew, James Patrick, named for his granddads, will be among them.
Hopefully, the parents at the school gates will not be outsourcing the experience of one of the most outstanding days of their own and their children's lives to a piece of technology. Maybe they will decide to live the big moment with their small son or daughter, as opposed to recording it. Phones can go missing, systems crash, clouds burst, but a moment as magical as this is something not just to be remembered, but relived.
The particular light of the morning; the feel of their child's hair as they brush it; the texture of the brand-new socks; the song on the radio at breakfast or on the way to school; the smell of the classroom, the scraping of chairs mixed with happy squealing; the small thunder in the yard as the older children get into their line as Gaeilge; the taste of salt tears as they turn away. For some, maybe, there's the unspoken and unnecessarily guilty thrill of freedom. A coffee drunk in silence without a single "can I have?; what is that?; who is he?; what's this word?; what is sound?; where does light sleep at night?; can we go?"
But if we are constantly recording personal moments, where is our place in them? Seeing everything through a screen casts us not as players in those moments, but as observers. That we never shared those moments in the first place, makes the subsequent compulsion to 'share' them with 'friends' or 'followers', many of them effective strangers, who could be similarly self-excluding in their own lives, is odd.
The constant recording of moments suggests we might not have the time to look at, never mind curate, all we have amassed. Donald Trump et al have managed to sneak in under the radar, while we're distracted with our saving and sending. So much of it trivia, even trash.
In the personal sphere, the desire and capacity for instant reaction are overwhelming our time and need for reflection, consideration. The adrenaline rush of the Gotcha! moment is swamping our very real requirement to wind in our technological rubbernecks, consider the possible objectifying, humiliating, damaging consequences of our live 'observations' and 'sharing', never mind matters of ethics or accuracy. A marital argy-bargy is live-tweeted from a train. A 50-something friend, who recovered so spectacularly from a spectacular stroke that she suffers only occasional unsteadiness, is waiting for her teens to alert her to photos taken on her way to work tagged #drunkauldwan #bitearly #morto.
A young soldier is 'caught' on a mobile phone at the 1916 commemorations. Quick snap; personal post; public reaction - should be dismissed; worst soldier ever; disgrace to the uniform; scarlet. In fact, the Army confirmed the soldier, a member of the Defence Forces Press Office, was merely doing his job.
In terms of news, with streaming on Facebook, Periscope, Snapchat, Twitter, there's the sense that if information isn't 'live' now, it's dead. But if 'live' is the benchmark of information's worth, it raises questions about the value we put on analysis, reflection, the space we make for either or both in our busy, distracted lives. I pity politicians on all sides who must react, and instantly, to what is presented as news. Give me the woman or man who'll say, "I'd like to reflect on that"; or the truly shocking, "I don't know", and I'll build them a shrine.
With technology, increasingly, we inhabit the world of the continuous present. Those of us in our 50s exist now in, or even between, run-on lines; the old grammar of our lives with its punctuation of feasting and fasting, no more. On the rare occasions we can afford it, we take refuge with the Italians, Spanish, or even the secular French, who manage to keep the old feasts, while banishing public witness to their gods.
In this continuous present, the perpetual now, we risk losing our perspective. Our arc of time is dangerously, impoverishingly short. If linking the humanitarian crisis at Europe's borders with the illegal war on Iraq is too much for too many, how could we even begin to consider it in terms of the British and French casting lots for the robes of the Old Ottoman Empire, in Sykes-Picot? One hundred years after World War I, political drama in Turkey, Hungary, Macedonia, France and Britain is still making the headlines. But can we even see the dots, let alone join them?
Recently I listened to the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach talk about the link between the conscious and unconscious minds; how we access 'the you of you'. In a world not just of sharing, but oversharing, we could ask what or who is the 'us of us'; or if what we are posting are alibis?
Despite the public sharing, I suspect we live incognito. Even - or especially - to ourselves.