On the Digital Age

We communicate more

The digital era has seen great advances in communications, especially email and texting. When asked what element of the digital world has had the greatest impact on their lives, many people will reply that it's email. Yet back in Victorian London there were four letter deliveries a day. It was possible to send a query and get a reply same day, and at a squeeze twice in one day. But the ability wasn't valued enough for it to survive and the frequency dropped to one. Speed of delivery isn't everything.

In terms of one-to-one human communication, the internet and mobile phones have speeded everything up, but not added all that much that's new. Email is a fast letter, a text is a fast postcard, a mobile phone cuts out the time it takes to get to a phone box (remember those?). The real communication revolutions came with the telegraph and telephone their impact was staggering. Mobiles and the internet have simply refined what went before. We can send photos in an instant, in the past it took a day or two. Hey ho.

If you start looking in detail at one-to-one communications, the digital revolution turns out to be not all that revolutionary after all. Greater convenience, faster delivery, easier record-keeping, but nothing awesome, nothing like the impact of the first telegraph message between London and New York. Yes, we have to organise our lives slightly differently, and tolerate sitting in a group of people all talking to somebody else on their mobiles, and ignore ring-tones in the theatre. We can tell our partner we're on the train ('mon-the-train, the mantra of an era) or studying the supermarket shelves, but has any of this fundamentally changed our society and our close relationships?

The answer is yes, but in a subtle way. The extra speed and efficiency have had a stimulating effect, and now we do a lot more (remote) communicating. We're far more likely to remain in close contact with our families while at work or on holiday, or in the supermarket, or even living in a different country. Possibly we might communicate with them less while we're in the same room because now we're too busy texting or writing emails to somebody else, but at least the continuity of communication with loved ones has taken a great leap forward. We can talk with them at the press of a button, or send a short message or something longer and carefully worded, or a photograph. We have almost instant communication and it's available in a multiplicity of methods, each suited to a different circumstance. In short, we have better tools, specialist tools, and we make a lot more use of them. That is a significant change.

It's also a distraction. Not only are internet searches full of sidetracks, but we're also bombarded by a stream of incessant emails, texts, messages and phone calls. They're another major element of the distraction overload.


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