There is nothing like a gust of rampant technophobia to set the media aflame, and the ballet dancer Carlos Acosta did the phenomenon proud last week with some choice remarks on the debilitating effect of electronic entertainment on standards in his profession.
In an interview with the Radio Times, Acosta declared that the rising generation of ballet stars lacked commitment, and that an explanation of this malaise lurked in the technological enticements available in every high street hardware store. “With phones, computer games and DVDs, kids are always distracted, always entertained,” he lamented. “If you have so many other things to help you make it through life, why try hard to achieve anything?” Here in the decadent 21st century, “everything has to be easy, and ballet is very, very hard”.
Two points should immediately be made about this j’accuse aimed at the new, soft cohort of cut-price Nureyevs they seem to be breeding up these days. The first is that such complaints, generally made by veterans of the trade – Acosta is 40 and in sight of retirement – are endemic to all occupations and pastimes and practically every professional activity worth the name. No novelist over the age of 50, for example, imagines those under 35 to possess the least shred of talent. No, they are all pampered darlings, holding down fancy day jobs in the creative writing departments of our newer universities, and none of them has ever done a hard day’s journalism in his, or her, life. It is the same with sport, and a sobering discourse on precisely these lines has just been filed by that great savant Geoffrey Boycott.
The second is that, as is invariably the case with these inter-generational put-downs, the Royal Ballet’s current principal guest artist is careful not to name names. Neither does he cite any relevant data confirming that levels of expertise at the barre have plummeted while the rehearsal rooms at the Bolshoi are full of computer consoles and elegant young women craning over Xboxes when they should be practising the pas seul. He simply assumes that these reflections have a basis in fact and leaves it at that.
On the other hand, most of us who use technology to any great extent, and in particular those of us who amuse themselves by watching other people use it, can be forgiven for assuming that the rapt techno-fest of which large parts of modern life seems to consist must be having some effect on the consciousness, not to say the motivation, of those absorbed in it and to wonder of just exactly what properties, good or bad, it might consist.
To turn horribly reductive for a moment, this inquiry ultimately reduces itself to a single question. Is the whole thing qualitative, or merely quantitative? In other words, is the proliferation of personal computers, mobile telephones, consoles and Xboxes changing, however stealthily, our collective mental outlook, or is it simply another of those palliatives, albeit on a vastly extended scale, on which the weak-minded have always tended to rely – opium for the people redesigned as Grand Theft Auto 5?
If the jury is and will continue to be out on this one, then it seems much easier to form a view of the wholly insidious and misleading way in which technology is brought to the consumer by means of advertising and computing supplements in newspapers: a kind of paradise of mature enlightenment, to judge from the rubric, in which the gadgets on offer are supposed to “liberate” the people buying them and give them the “choices” that will enable them to control their lives.
In fact, a glance along the corridor of the average mid-evening commuter train, in which quite half the occupants are staring grimly at their portable communication devices waiting for the boss to call, suggests that technology, rather than setting us free, is constraining us in ways that would have been unimaginable to the workforce of half a century ago, tethering us to contingencies we would much rather leave behind.
The Victorian coal-miner might have worked a 10-hour shift for a pittance, but at least he didn’t have the mine-owner ringing him up as he walked home to ask if he had counted the surplus pit-props.
And what kind of choice or self-determination is involved in the search for a style accessory whose main recommendation to the consumer is that everyone else wants one? It is the same with the alleged conveniences of technology – being compelled to pay bills by direct debit, for example – which nearly always means convenient to the institution providing the service at the expense of the individual receiving it.
As for the human consequences of all this, you hear a great deal these days about the “communities” that technology is helping to create and the participation it supposedly encourages, while wondering what, in the end, these artificial agglomerations, ripe to be dispersed at the flick of a switch, actually achieve. Certainly, in exceptional circumstances, the ability to communicate instantly with thousands of people can have an extraordinary effect – see the build-up to the Arab Spring. But bedrock-level participation of the sort encouraged by media discussion forums nearly always seems to result in a succession of lost tempers. Participants seem to assemble not to obtain power but to convey their own powerlessness, and are invited to have their say only to be caught up in a process that mocks this laudable ambition as it goes along.
Quite by chance, I picked up the report of Carlos Acosta’s Radio Times interview shortly after putting down Fred Inglis’s new biography of the celebrated cultural studies pioneer Richard Hoggart, whose The Uses of Literacy (1957) mapped out the moral terrain occupied by working-class communities in the first half of the 20th century. What would Hoggart, a scholarship boy from a poor home endlessly exercised by questions of “how to behave”, have made of Xboxes and Super Mario? My own guess is that he would have questioned their integrity, decided that the associations they encouraged were inauthentic, and reckoned their influence more or less destructive. Significantly, Hoggart’s observations, made late in life, on the piles of cheap CDs marked “easy listening” – that it might be worth the effort to try some hard listening for a change – echo Acosta’s complaints about the younger generation’s apparent reluctance to strive.
There is, of course, nothing to be done about any of this, and to suggest that most engagement with the world of hi-tech entertainment is simply so much wasted time is to be written off as a sort of antediluvian half-wit. And inevitably, practical advantage will always edge out philosophical unease. One of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories features a woman who, after rowing with her boyfriend, sets out on a 10-day hike in remote country, leaving her mobile phone in the trailer on the grounds that “discarding the technology sharpened the senses”. No doubt it does. The girl, trapping her leg beneath a granite boulder, is eventually rescued by the man she left behind. In the meantime, the mobile has come to resemble a providential tool of the Gods.