Lonely world of technology

I could observe my son's life as a spectator, watching him but unable to touch him or teach him
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The Independent Culture
I'M SITTING in the office in front of my computer, and I don't know where my son is or what he is doing. I know, of course, that he is with his childminder and her daughter, who is six months older than he is. I know he is as safe with her as he is when he is with me, whatever the three of them are doing, and that he is fondly attached to both his childminder and his playmate. Lucky me, lucky them.

Soon my son will be out of nappies and old enough to go to nursery. If I were to secure a place for him at Toggles in Croydon, I'd be able to sit here at my desk at work and receive live images of what my boy was up to via the Internet. This, according to Emma French, the entrepreneurial 26-year-old who will next month begin operating this technology at her pounds 120-a-week nursery, will help me to perform better at work, because I will know my child is safe.

Except that I can't think of anything that would make me feel further away from my son, or more detached from him. Stupidly, I returned to work when he was a little less than three months old, and found I was unable to keep a photograph of him on my desk. I would look at him and ache with loss. It was better to get on with my work as intensively as possible, the sooner to be back home with him.

Emma French suggests that if my son were to bump his head at nursery, I could receive footage showing exactly what happened. Live images of my sobbing child being comforted by someone else. She says that rather than missing out on key moments in my child's life, like the first time he ties his shoelace, I will be able to see such moments, from my office, "or wherever". My son's life live, observed by his mother, his spectator, watching him but unable to touch him or to teach him.

This news reminds me of the television advertisement that has been running lately, in which some mobile phone company suggests that working mothers who travel abroad should sign up to them as they have a Europe-wide flat rate for calls. In the advert the mother calls her pyjamaed son, saying she can't be long because she's on her mobile. The boy slumps dejectedly on the couch. Then the phone rings again, but this time the mother declares breezily that it's time for her son's favourite bedtime story. This time the boy bounces onto the settee in a state of animation and excitement, next to a frozen doppleganger representing the unhappy child he was before. His mother acts out his bedtime story from an Italian square, while her male colleagues look on in bewilderment. Mother and son, we are assured by the advert, find this level of communication to be a satisfying compromise. No kiss and cuddle before bed, but at least there has been a meeting of minds.

It's interesting, this idea that technology can be an important parenting tool, and it is bound, of course, to prove extremely lucrative. But it also a little frightening, for all sorts of reasons. Oddly, these reasons were vividly explored many years ago by the writer Michael Frayn, long before the mobile phone or the internet had come into being.

In A Very Private Life, Frayn posited a future in which the rich lived in sealed houses which they left only in emergencies because of the poor quality of the air outside. Although they would live in these houses as families, everyone lived entirely alone, in their own chamber, communicating regularly by computer and spending time together by virtue of Scotty-style Star Trek beaming.

The parents among this elite did not even procreate, finding it more convenient and less medically stressful to simply send off egg and sperm and receive a fully gestated baby after a certain period which may or may not have been nine months.

Our heroine in this story was a girl called Uncumber, who refused to join in the sterile rituals of her family life, and one day while surfing on the Net linked up briefly with an oddly vivid man with whom she felt an degree of kinship she had never experienced in the bosom of her family.

Unable to call him up on her screen again, she runs away from her home, travelling to the other side of the world to find him, discovering in the process how the manual workers live in the decaying, disease-blighted, broken-down world outside of the teched-up shelters for the wealthy she has been brought up in. Needless to say, Frayn being a leftie, liberal sort of scribe, the lives of this vast majority were far from edifying, although in quite a different way to the those of the isolated but electronically intimate ruling class.

While this stark technology-led division of the planet was projected by Frayn as still being far in the future, the odd thing is that in many ways Frayn's future-shock world can already clearly be seen all around us.

Take the recent reports on the birth of the world's one-billionth Indian, and the description by Shiv Visvanathan of the Centre for Study of Developing Countries in Delhi, of life for these people (half of whom, far from subscribing to the Internet, are illiterate). "Many of our major cities are in a state of collapse with transport breakdowns, air pollution, health epidemics, water shortages and power supply problems."

By contrast, take the recent report by Dr Richard Jolly commissioned by the UN Development Programme and stating that "The typical Internet user is male, under 35 years old, with a college education and high income, urban-base and English-speaking - a member of an elite minority worldwide." Then further into the report, comes the warning that care, "the invisible heat of human development", is threatened because the competitive market puts pressure on time, resources and incentives for caring labour. Without this "individuals do not flourish and social cohesion can break down".

The most important care of course, is the care adults give to children. This care cannot be given via the Internet or through the mobile phone. And while as a working mother I am aware this care cannot always be given by family, it must at least be given by someone the family trusts. Trust cannot exist between parent and carer if one is watching the other, while the mobile phone woman would be more secure in leaving her child if she could trust someone else to make him feel secure and happy at bedtime. Maybe his dad.

While a subtle camera in the nursery, or a cheap rate call from Europe may seem like positive tools to help with parenting, they are instead devices which normalise our isolation from our children, and further drive a wedge between them and their designated carers.

And while in both of these cases the cheapness of the technology is emphasised, the fact remains that their widespread adoption can only raise the cost of not being with one's children. Those for whom such technology is out of reach will be sequestered in another world, surrounded by too much human contact, as the others, the elite, find themselves withdrawing more and more.

To combat the divisions among humans that technology is causing, Dr Jolly has suggested a tax on e-mails, the revenue from which would be invested in extending the Internet in third world countries. Not all experts are convinced such a scheme would work. But it must surely be seen as a step in the right direction. The acceptance of the idea that the Internet and the mobile phone can be an adequate substitute for, or supplement to, human contact with our children is undoubtedly a further step towards Frayn's very private, very lonely, very nasty world - a world already materialising around us more quickly than we can even recognise what is happening to us all.