Internet can leave you disconnected

In the era of ringtones, the courtesy of receiving undivided attention may end up a thing of the past, writes DECLAN KIBERD

In the era of ringtones, the courtesy of receiving undivided attention may end up a thing of the past, writes DECLAN KIBERD

A MAN and woman sit in a restaurant. They have hardly a word to throw at each other, but once food arrives there is a constant text messaging of absent friends. At the table itself, life and chat are on hold.

It used to be said that a bore was a person who took away your solitude and gave you nothing in return. But that was before the mobile phone companies intervened. They claim to be “connecting people”, but it’s not often true. In the era of the ringtone, the courtesy of giving or receiving undivided attention threatens to become a thing of the past. Concentration on a sustained conversational theme becomes impossible because of helpless availability to incoming calls. Those making or receiving them are clearly too important to ignore.

This behaviour isn’t just rude and vain. It’s also very stupid. As stupid as that ad which shows a man ecstatic at having just seen his new-born child on a video-phone. You can’t help wondering why he’s not present at the birth, but like most addicts of technology, he’s not there.

Current gadgets – iPods, internet, iPhones – create only an illusion of communication. The dark glares of people whose heads are encircled by earphones seem to indicate self-interrogation. The effect, however, is to block out other people and to use the distraction of sound to end any hope of connecting with the inner self.

Technology has created an obsession with external things – body image, flashing colour, noisy sounds. People wearing earphones routinely walk unawares into dangerous traffic, as if their lives were cheap. Responsiveness to the full sensory environment is diminished more often than enhanced by contraptions.

Yet, because of the privatisation of consciousness, people’s vanity has become linked to ideas of self-enclosure. Dark glasses, once the preserve of heavy-lidded rock stars, are now worn by office workers who actually want to seem impervious and undecodable.

Last year, the musician Bob Dylan lamented all this in Rolling Stonemagazine: "It's unnerving to see so many young people walking around with cell-phones and iPods in their ears, so wrapped up in media."

His objection was thoroughly American – the machines robbed people of self-identity, tuned them out of real life and reduced their freedom. “The cost of liberty is high,” he explained, “and young people should understand that before they start spending their life with all these gadgets.”

He’s right. The internet seldom promotes independent thought, but has allowed naive people to copy and paste cloned paragraphs under the delicious illusion that they are creating something in a process of “interactive learning”.

Social network sites like Facebook seem to ratify the gloriously multiple self of the owner, while really putting pressure on participants to show themselves with endless friends, knowledge, drinks, parties. That may help some to socialise.

However, such vulgar gloating makes most people shy and insecure: the pretence of conviviality becomes a mask for vanity and competitiveness.

These sites often violate that privacy that should be cherished by every democratic citizen. Mothers are now using them to suss the behaviour of their kids, as do policemen and interview boards.

No longer does your private life begin in the next parish. It never starts at all.

It’s always been hard to be young: but now you not only have to deal with the hangover next morning, but also to implore your friend to remove forever from the record that shot of your drunken dance on a table.

The fatal lure of YouTube is its injunction to “broadcast yourself”, licensing the expression of nutty, embarrassing opinions in the guise of democratic exchange. Most of that is specious nonsense.

Doubtless, at the foot of this column, you’ll be told you can “have your say” online. However, you won’t have to supply a name and address, as those honest people who write letters to the editor have to do.

It’s true, of course, that some people post sites with a degree of self-irony; and that others have used them, as James Joyce might have done, to enter rather than evade their own psyches.

As yet, alas, the new technologies have produced no new art forms. Mostly, it’s been a matter of bullying, beheadings and bad, bad vibes. Masked and anonymous ranters use the media to vent. Others employ it to steal the copyright of lovely songs and beautiful texts. No wonder Dylan is so mad.

And as u hav ur say I hav 2 read Shakespere n listen 2 mi vinyl duble rekord of blonde on blonde l m a o . . .