The internet just slows us all downby Terry Eagleton / June 19, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Brring brring: “Are you listening in on my private conversation?” © Vetta
I shall soon be the only EMV (email virgin) left in the country. I have never sent an email, though I’ve occasionally cheated and asked my teenage son to do so for me. Nor have I ever used the internet. I am no more capable of going online than I am of getting to Saturn. I don’t know how to text. I do have a mobile phone, but it’s immobile. I never take it out of the house, for fear of triggering some ridiculous trend in which hordes of people march down the street bawling into these sinister little gadgets. If you allowed people to use mobile phones in public, you might end up being forced to listen to them on trains and in cafes, asking noisily whether the invoices have arrived. The prospect is too appalling to contemplate. The only time I might conceivably have needed a mobile phone outside the house was when I once turned my car over in the Irish mountains and was trapped inside the vehicle for a while. When a passer-by did finally try to use a phone, however, it didn’t work, since the mountains were too high. Hanging upside down like a gigantic bat, my chest crushed painfully against the air bag, I felt quietly vindicated.
I have, however, hit on an unbeatable way of taking my revenge on the “Have the invoices arrived yet?” brigade. Whenever I sit on a train, I place a small banana on the table before me. If I find myself opposite someone who forces me to listen to his boring, brain-rotting conversation, I give a loud “brring brring.” Then I pick up the banana and conduct a deafening pseudo-dialogue of soul-killing dullness. If the person opposite protests that I’m sending him up, I ask him in affronted tones whether he has been listening in on my private conversation.
My resistance to email didn’t start out as a protest. It’s just one aspect of my general technological backwardness. I was cleaning my teeth with a twig long after the invention of toothbrushes, and using a typewriter long after everyone else had switched to a computer. “But how do you revise stuff?” they would ask me. “Revise?” I would reply incredulously, one eyebrow superciliously cocked. Showers are a bit of a problem as well. I usually wait for it to rain and then dash out and roll around on the front lawn.
Nowadays, however, protest is most definitely what my email virginity has become. I am living proof that all this frenetic, mostly vacuous, communication is quite superfluous. We all survived without it before it started, and I personally have survived without it ever since. If people really want to contact me, they write. If they can’t be bothered, or have forgotten how to do it, or imagine that writing disappeared with Norman Wisdom and drainpipe trousers, that’s their problem. Besides, email is surely just a passing fad. My own prediction is that it will be over by next Christmas and everyone will then revert to my own state of technological chastity.
In my view, the internet is really an anti-modern device for slowing us all down, returning us to the rhythms of an earlier, more sedate civilisation. In the frantic, fast-moving years before Apple and Google, you would ask for a hotel room and the clerk would just write your name down in a book. It was all over in 20 seconds. These days you ask for a room and the receptionist starts to type a chapter of his novel. Once he has inserted one or two rather elaborate subplots and added a few complex new characters, he remembers what he is supposed to be doing and hands you your room key.
Language is first of all a way of being with other people, and only secondarily a way of getting things done. This is why the paradigm of human communication is not the public relations agency but the pub. Steve Jobs’s last words are said to have been: “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow!” Thinking back to King Lear, it’s hard not to feel that something has been lost. My only problem now is how to get this piece to the editor.