There’s a cartoon in a recent issue of Private Eye showing a mum and her daughter outside a cinema. The film is Toy Story 3 and the iPad- and iPhone-toting tot is asking, “Mummy, what’s a toy?” I laughed a lot, but it was a hollow laugh: just that morning I’d bought my wee girl the Toy Story 3 electronic book.
My daughter is growing up surrounded by screens. In the morning, I’m reading blogs and feeds and sites and tweets on my phone while chugging down coffees. Mrs Bigmouth reads The Guardian online, visits message boards and catches up with friends on Facebook. During the day, I’m stuck in front of my twin-screen setup – three screens if you include the smartphone – for hours on end. My wife checks in with friends using her smartphone and my daughter spends the odd half'hour using drawing apps or playing games.
This is not something I’m particularly worried about right now. Baby Bigmouth spends much more time charging around parks with her pals than she does chasing things around a screen, and her electronic adventures are largely educational and always chaperoned. But I do worry about the increasing importance of screens in our lives. I suspect if an alien were to land on Earth right now and look around, he’d assume that the screens were our masters, not the other way around.
He’d be right.
Glow with it
Look around you the next time you’re anywhere public – a railway station or a train carriage, a city street or a shopping mall – and you’ll see faces illuminated in backlight blue. You’ll see it in cinemas, not just during the trailers but during the exciting bits of the blockbuster. You’ll see it in restaurants, where courting couples only have eyes for their iPhones. You’ll see it in checkout lines, where no queue is so short someone can’t fire off a quick status update. You’ll see it in dark alleyways, just before the phone owner gets mugged. And, in the most frightening cases, you’ll see faces in backlit blue behind the wheel of speeding BMWs.
I’ve seen this before, because I used to be a smoker. I smoked in railway stations and in train carriages, shopping malls and cinemas, in airports and in aeroplanes and in offices and in restaurants and in any place that wasn’t packed with explosives. If I couldn’t smoke, I’d be thinking about smoking, and if I left the house without my cigarettes, I’d be a twitchy, nervous wreck until I got my fix again.
I’m like that with my smartphone now, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Increasingly, our everyday activities appear to be irritations, obstacles – things that we do between being online. In public places, we’re separated by our screens, interacting with faraway friends while ignoring the people a few feet from us. For all the talk of a social web, the way we’re using it is as social as smoking.