Walking home this wintry Melbourne night, I passed under a pair of sneakers hanging from the telephone wires above a crossroads, and was struck by how archaic that old marker of a drug pick-up point seemed. Did people really ever hang out on street corners waiting for their hooded dealer to turn up with an ounce of dope? If they didn’t just use the telephone then, they’ve got plenty more options to choose from now. I imagine an online courier business would work rather well.
The thing is, the immediacy of personal, digital communications devices means nobody has the patience to work on that sort of a clock anymore. Except maybe in Peru, or in remote indigenous communities far from this particular inner-city street corner. In which case, pull up a pew. The telephone line’s not in use, so maybe bring a letter writing set too. I hear the postman passes round this way on Tuesdays.
The immediacy of digital technology removes a lot of the mystery from our lives, some of which can be rather thrilling. Gone is that building of excitement that comes when you just have to wait for something – like finding out who won the game when you get home from work, or waiting till Thursday night for the next episode of your favourite TV drama, instead of downloading it early or buying it on DVD from overseas (although it’s got to be said, the DVD marathon is one of today’s many pleasures). What about hanging around that pretty girl’s favourite café in case you accidentally-on-purpose bump into her? You’re probably more likely to pull off those sorts of casual, just-popping-by airs on Facebook than in the bookshop.
Technology vs. Romance?
I had the privilege of being in Edinburgh during its world-famous Fringe festival last year. One of the highlights was York theatre group Belt Up, patroned by none other than Dame Judi Dench. Belt Up went about transforming one floor of a big old building (owned by the University of Edinburgh and now only in use during the festival due to extensive fire damage) to look like the interior of a 1920s house. Inside this magical space, their wildly original and surreal comedies transported audiences back in time, to the bohemian circles inhabited by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (Lorca is Dead), and to the home of much loved children’s author and creator of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie (The Boy James).
My friend, a gorgeous little thing from Rome who liked to wear grandpa jackets, train driver hats and horn-rimmed glasses bigger than her face, began a romantic affair with a member of the troupe. He was quietly spoken and thoroughly British, with foppish brown hair and good, strong shoulders. Perhaps because she was so romanced by the historical setting of their plays, she refused to give him her mobile phone number. And so they were forced to rendezvous at exciting hours in the ephemeral festival bars, or chance encounters in poster-covered stairwells on their ways to separate shows.
The elimination of technology from their courting injected some magic – and indeed, romance – into what might have otherwise been an enjoyable, but more conventional, holiday fling. When the not-so-heady Scottish summer waned and the besotted couple in turn went their separate ways, there was the requisite emotion and grief; yet the memory of their time together was left intact and pure, untainted by the inevitable markers of a dying romance: the length of phone calls and text messages decreasing, the days between them increasing. The nature of their encounter seemed to distill and celebrate the very thing that matters most in relationships: direct, in-person communication.
Throwing an Electric Spanner in the Works
If technology removes some of the mystery from our lives, genre writers must be tearing their hair out. I remember once watching an episode of Buffy and shaking my head in disbelief as her party faithful ran round hysterically, crying “Where’s Buffy? We can’t find Buffy!” and imagining all sorts of perilous, vampiric ends for her. Why didn’t they just ring her mobile, duh? Panic-driving plot devices like this one can now be trumped by phoning on the run, which means the storyboarders require a little more ingenuity. I suppose the flip side is they’ve now got a lot more to work with when it comes to sci-fi monsters and techno-dystopias. Meanwhile, period dramas such as Mad Men, Deadwood or Downton Abbey are even more appealing for their old world, pre-digital charm.
There’s another way in which our communication devices cause hiccups in storytelling: a screen doesn’t look particularly exciting on another screen. Face-to-face conversation, replete with theatrical expressions and spit, is a far more compelling depiction of character interaction than texts or online chats, and even the old phone conversation. There’s something jarring about having to constantly cut between two people in different places for the duration of a conversation that already feels unnatural anyway. The requisite small talk – “Hi, how’re you going?” – is often glaringly omitted, and too frequently characters neglect to say their farewells before hanging up. (Er, rude! I think you’re de-friended.)
Digital devices provide endless fun for the person using them, but are rather boring (or irritating – think headphones up way too loud on the train) for anyone else around them. I’m reminded of one night, pre-smartphone-owner, when I went out to the pub and became incredibly fed up with my friends who repeatedly pulled out their phones and fiddled around with their apps (if that sounds a bit wrong, that’s because it is). Etiquette, schmetiquette. Us self-involved Westerners should take a leaf out of the Japanese Big Book of Social Niceties (or maybe the ever-popular Social Primer‘s blog pages), and save our personal bits for when we’re in private. No-one wants to hear you yelling at your boyfriend on the street … through a phone. And if you’re selfish enough to not give a rat’s arse about anyone else’s comfort, then at least consider how you might look to them – a bit mentally challenged.
“Carn, Show us Yer Texts!”
But technology can do some stuff that more direct interaction isn’t always so good at. Naughty stuff, for instance. It’s easy to hide behind the anonymity of internet chat rooms and proffer vitriolic comments that we’d never say to a person’s face – but removing that nakedness, if you will, of stark, face-to-face contact can also work in the positive. I’m not sure how well I’d do sexy talk over the phone, but having a greater buffer between yourself and the receiver through, say, texting, makes it easier to say a few cheeky words. Phones are still quite personal, though – you’re still giving something of yourself, opening yourself up, when you choose to give someone your phone number. For these reasons, texting is a great invention for anyone who struggles with expressing themselves intimately. Even if that’s not a problem for you (you lucky thing you), it’s still a quick and precise way to remind someone of intimacies shared. Just don’t try to say anything too deep – it may backfire.
Muggers are also surely benefiting from the ubiquity of personal digital devices. Who wouldn’t want to exact revenge upon an obnoxious Gen Y who’s wandering obliviously across a road, punching away at buttons, ears plugged up, stylish haircut obscuring everything but the screen? Petty theft just got a whole lot more profitable. I’m not sure why Spain’s economy should be struggling so much, what with its high incidence of pick-pockets. Sure, wired-up youngsters might be fitter than your easy-target Nan, but they’re probably about as switched on, and these days they’re sporting smart phones, headphones, iPods, iPads, netbooks, scooters and expensive sneakers. (Though if Nan’s carrying a wad of cash in her purse, your odds might still be best with her).
Perhaps that’s what the sneakers are doing are up there – they didn’t fit the thief.