20 Feb

The New Babel

It’s just boring – so I have often been told – to keep complaining about the ubiquitous nuisance of the electronic social media. I should just get over it, I suppose. Except I fear we are stoking up for ourselves some very destructive consequences and I don’t mean only the worry that we are all going to lose the power to concentrate on anything for longer than five seconds. In fact, that inability has been with us for a long time. I’m not particularly bothered about what constant use of mobile phones and gawping into tablets might do the shape, frequency or infrequency of our brain waves. The most worrying aspect is what our obsession with these gadgets will do to our human relationships, indeed, is doing already: on every train, everyone peering into the gadget or talking through it to someone miles away rather than engaging with his neighbour – the real flesh and blood neighbour who’s sitting next to him.

I shouldn’t bang on about it, I know, but just grow up and accept the modern world as it is. After all, no one is forcing me to use these gadgets: shut up then and let the addicts and obsessives get on with it. Except this is not quite true. Of course I cannot be forced to purchase or use a mobile phone or a tablet, but because I move around over the surface of the world, I have no escape from their intrusiveness. It is hard to overestimate the degree and intensity of the nuisance – not least the banality of the content. I mean no one says anything on a mobile phone that is of any interest ever. “I’m on a train.” So are we all, darling. “I’m in the supermarket now and they have no beans. Should I get peas?” Hardly the sound of good news being brought from Ghent to Aix, or even Aix to Ghent.

But last night I witnessed something so shocking that I am forced to resume my banging on and so steel myself to tolerate the disdain of the aficionados. I was on a train – yes really. It was a tube train. Everybody was interfacing with his gadget. I sat beside a man who was playing a game on a tablet which obviously – from the sight of its baby pink design – belonged to a child. There was a child, a real one, sitting surly and whining in his pushchair and ignored by his father. This child was no more than five years old. I thought, any minute now his dad is going to switch off the tiresome device, pick his son up and talk to him, perhaps even cuddle him. But no. He – with what degree of reluctance one could assess from his scowl –  handed the accursed gadget to the child. And the child took to it as to the manner born, negotiating the buttons and levers with terrifying alacrity. I was scared by what seemed like callousness, a sort of cybernetic indifference.

Couldn’t help that biblical text hurtling into my mind: Or what man among you, whom if his son shall ask for bread will give him a stone?