As much of my knowledge about Britain – from Neolithic warrior to Victorian dandy – is down to television historian Simon Schama and his wise and accessible documentaries, my ears cannot help but prick up when he pours forth on the era we are in right now.
Schama is perturbed, it appears, by the “Look Down” generation – those who live nigh-continuously attached to smartphones, their eyes focused downwards on to fluttering mini-screens offering rolling news, tweets, Snapchat jolliness and a miscellany of other diversions from real life.
“Go and travel on the Tube,” Schama says, “and [you’ll see] people are losing that sense of actually eyeballing each other. It is something which is absolutely elemental, it’s our first human act.” Schama’s withering dismay extends to selfies, which he says are “quick dumbness”.
I shall not speak of the Look Down generation like distant, seldom-known, socially inept strangers, for I am one myself.
Or at least was, because I class myself as “In Recovery”. Baby steps: no phone under the pillow at bedtime, reading paperbacks instead of Twitter, eating without Instagramming, trying to exist for entire days where I don’t read a single complete stranger’s opinion on an obscure news event that was no concern to me in the first place.
No more posting gorgeous, pouting selfies of myself on the internet where, in reality, I resemble a mallard suffering from haemorrhoids. Selfie sticks are, to my mind, one of the lowest points in human development. In fact, images of warring selfie sticks surrounding the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, as people battle to add their grinning face to Leonardo da Vinci’s perfection is a strong portent that we’re due another Noah’s Ark-size flood.
Nevertheless, when I read Schama’s words on our inability to eyeball strangers on the London Underground, my chest became tight. Because why would I look right at a stranger? They might engage me in a random conversation I had no way of escaping from by logging off or setting my status to “Away”. My rehabilitation into a “Looking Up” lifestyle is clearly a long and winding road.
Of course, Schama’s comments will go down, no doubt, like a cup of cold sick to most people aged 14 to 45 because not only is he completely correct, but most of us are so chronically addicted to our smartphones that any criticism sends us into a furious counter-attack. How dare anyone insinuate we are hiding from difficult emotions and scenarios by staring down at some tech kit in our hand? Who is he anyway? Twitterstorm, assemble! Hit him with sticks!
I remember a non-techy friend gently suggesting to me, years ago, that if human beings have been on Earth approximately 200,000 years, and had only began reading 5000 years ago, then perhaps the fact that we only started scrolling social media apps on smartphones around five years ago was important. Perhaps we would sacrifice our sanity, our humanity, in return for the sugar rush of 87 ideas per minute here and now.
I ignored him, obviously. How could I stop scrolling? I might miss people on the internet being wrong, then other people being mean to them. Meanwhile, pot plants wilted, nieces’ birthdays were forgotten and the sweet early morning cooing of the fat wood pigeons who sit on my roof were roundly ignored.
We “look down” because when we “look up” the human condition forces us to think some pretty troubling stuff. The unoccupied, Twitter- and Facebook-free brain is an awful, nagging bastard. Give it five minutes staring out of a train window and it will force you to confront your relationship with your step-dad since 1988, or how you’ll ever survive in old age without a pension. Or why you slept with that person in 1997 or how you can book a dinner table for nine friends next Saturday, when two are vegan, one wants a smoking garden and two are in the process of divorce.
At this point we grab our phones and lose ourselves in looking down. Maybe post a selfie and watch the likes tot up. The Mindfulness movement – a secular meditation offshoot which has become increasingly popular of late – perhaps in response to internet malaise – suggests we need to ruthlessly sit with these annoying thoughts. Only in allowing them to burn out can we be content. But then this sort of hippy-dippy piffle is why people on Twitter and Facebook often loathe the mention of mindfulness too. How dare these jumped up cod-Buddhists tell me to spend 10 minutes a day breathing calmly in order to improve my mood?
Radical blogs by human beings who speak of opting to live almost without smartphones at all, have started to appear. Simon Schama heaven, if you will. A life devoted to looking people in the eye. If a query about the world emerges, one blog suggests, simply write it down, and then treat yourself to one hour per week where you use a café with wi-fi.
Yet recently, when I interviewed a number of people about their home internet use, they laughed at the concept of turning off their router for even one hour per day. For a start, their children would not allow it. They certainly sounded scared of offending their children.
I can’t help feeling the happiest kids of the future will be the ones – like Schama says – with the ability to look people in the eye. The most miserable ones won’t. But at least they’ll post lots of selfies of their self-made prison.
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