I was struck by the news that Britons’ spending on downloads finally broke through the £1b ceiling last year. This is not just music (in fact about a half is gaming downloads which have risen dramatically), but it is interesting to note that sales of CDs fell by 15%, at the same time as music downloads rose by 15%. There is a clear migration from concrete products to the ethereal.
Personally, I received the usual pile of CDs for Christmas. And I was very happy to find them all under the tree and in my stocking and to unwrap and enthuse over each one. I’m not sure how I would feel if all I received was an addition to my iPod or a Spotify card. Actually, that’s not just the old fogey view – I see that sales of vinyls (records, not floor coverings) also increased last year, so someone must also like to handle their music, not just hear it.
But this blog is not about music exactly; it’s more about the way we are allowing technology to take over our life. Maybe that’s the old fogey speaking. But wait, I’m the one with the wisdom, the one who’s supposed to inform and nurture the next generation.
My CD collection is something to share with all the family. We sit and listen together, me tapping my feet and singing along, they groaning and rolling their eyes. I also like to invite the neighbours in to look at it in envy. I have hours of personal enjoyment with it too, rearranging it, reading the sleeve notes, checking my musicology memory. Not to mention playing the discs. But the point is that a download is a much more private, antisocial animal. It is possible to pop your pad or pod into a dock and to listen to it en famille, but on the whole we don’t do that. We listen while we jog, or strip down the car and reassemble it, or sit on the train, and, when we don’t, we play games, ourselves against the computer.
There was a survey a little while ago which asked which items we couldn’t do without in our lives. The idea was to look at family incomes and expenditures with the Recession in mind. Top of the list of course was the cell phone. I say ‘of course’ because I don’t expect anyone is surprised by that. But, if your income is restricted and you have commitments such as rent, utilities, fares, etc, maybe first on your list might be a kettle, or a frying pan. I think second on the list was a television. I can see much more of an argument for that being valuable (I’m thinking of a small, inexpensive model naturally, since money is tight), with its regular news, informative programming and entertainment for all the family. But the fact remains that we have come to see these items as essentials to life, rather than aids or luxuries. As I say, a television can promote family gatherings, but I suspect that that is not the most common use for it these days. The cellphone meanwhile has become a sort of hi-tech security blanket. We carry it around in our hands, we consult it constantly, we worry if it doesn't play its Gangnam Style ringtone every five minutes, and of course it's our access to our social network. It could be considered essential, but actually it's keeping us from our social group, from the pub or coffee shop (or distracting us when there), it has replaced talking to friends directly. And it has replaced asking questions; why be embarrassed by not knowing, when you can look it up on your iPhone Wiki or OMG! app?
I noted the other day that baby Rooney (footballer’s 3 year-old) was criticised in the press for having its own iPad. I can see the difficulty of buying presents for a child when you have so much money that it already has everything, and I am not going to rant about the appropriateness of a 3 year-old with an iPad. Normally, one wouldn’t buy expensive, breakable toys for children; more normally you would buy them crayons, books, footballs, family games. Of course baby Rooney already has lots of those, but guiding him into the solitary world of the computer gamer is not helping him to interact with the real world. It’s another example of advanced technology being considered an everyday item, but also replacing humans. Rather than being lifestyle-assisting, it has become a substitute for that lifestyle or a lifestyle of its own. The only life it’s assisting is that of the mother, who is in fact the one that should be interacting with the child at this age and helping it into the real world.
When I went up to London on the train recently, there was a young mother sitting across the aisle with a child in a pushchair in front of her. It was probably about 2. It was tiny and didn’t do much anyway. The mother sat the whole way (about an hour) holding an iPad in front of him, showing a movie. Admittedly the film was The Gruffalo, but apart from the occasional soporific stare at the screen, the child looked out of the window, around the carriage, at the man sitting next to Mum, anythwhere but at the movie, which I imagine was incomprehensible to him anyway. OK, I know how difficult young kids can be on journeys, but this one was fine, without the iPad. Here again, the iPad had become a substitute for mothering, not an aid.
And it's much the same with television. It's so much easier sitting little Justin in front of a TV cartoon show than to interact with him. You don't need a governess, or a nanny, or even a mother, if Tinky Winky or Igglepiggle can do the job for you, without either of you even having to speak.
I had an interesting experience this week, to highlight another contrast. I know that many people do all their shopping online; I have bought online too many times and very successfully. We decided we had had enough of all this rain and looked on the Last Minute website for a good deal last minute holiday in the sun. Well, we found one – next week, very cheap, half board, sun and sand, flights and transfers included. But, it being a package flight, baggage was to be paid for. We were expected to pay £48 per person for a 15kg suitcase. Occasionally we have made do with one suitcase for a holiday, especially if it saves £48 for an additional case, but 15kg?! My shoes and shirts alone weigh more than that!
So we rang the company. On a telephone. And spoke to a person. ‘Ah’, she said. ‘I think I can do better than that for you. Yes, here we are. 20kg each for a total of £48.’ Needless to say, despite my innate aversion to paying airlines to take my suitcase with me, we booked the holiday there and then. But we didn’t do it online, that would have been too expensive, we booked it with a real person, not on a computer or a smart phone, but on a dumb landline telephone! Maybe online shopping does have its limitations.
Anyway, technology has its place. A list of my life essentials would probably include a microwave and a refrigerator. Even those I could frankly do without, but 'most important' let's say. After that, I’d have to think a bit. Computer? No, I can use the one in the library for free. Telephone? No, the only calls I get are from double glazing salesmen. If I need to ring anyone, there’s a telephone box down the road. Car? No, it’s often quicker (and healthier) to walk. Newspaper? No. Books? Again the library comes to my assistance free. Music? Well, yes, but, if I had a radio, that would give me enough access. A television would be nice, but I tend to watch the Freeview music channels or listen to the radio on the TV quite often anyway. So, a radio. That’s all we need in life then – a refrigerator, a microwave, and a radio. Oh, and some crayons.