You’ve got mail…

I thought it was too easy.

A week of long, fraught hours, early starts and late finishes, coupled with some bug or other to sap my remaining energy, ended with technical glitches… and, just for good measure, the internet went down too. By the time I got all that sorted, I was about ready to call it a day, grab a hot water bottle and retire, but I still had all the catching up to do…

Except, somehow, it didn’t seem to take long.  An hour later and I was left only with the photo -prompt entries to read.  That was a result!

It was also weird. My inboxes do not get away lightly as a rule, but they have been very quiet the past few days. Suspiciously so. Then I noticed the number of unread emails in my spam folder and groaned… for some reason, hundreds of the things had been automatically routed there, and I was going to have to go through the lot.

Cursing and grumbling, I went through the sender and subject of every darned email, returning each one to the appropriate folder. It took a while. I have not had much energy left at the end of the day, so for the past few days, I have not emptied my spam and delete folders before bed as I usually do. And apparently, this problem has been going on for several days.

I double-checked what was left, making sure that any personal, important or school-related stuff had been safely sequestered, and hit delete on the rest, trying not to feel guilty.

I thought, as I did so, how instant communication has changed our lives. We can speak to people across the world in real time… even face to face with free video calling if we choose… and couldn’t help thinking about how our emotional response to communication has changed too.

I used to love getting letters, because… unless they were bills… they were always full of news and details about friends, family and loved ones. Some I would read and re-read… savouring them… and some have been kept for decades as tangible pieces of personal history, love and friendship. I actually got a letter today… with a proper, handwritten envelope and an intriguing postmark… and felt the once-familiar quiver of excitement. It was such an unusual occurrence that I left it on the desk for a while unopened to prolong the sensation. I could not imagine who it might be from, and when I did open it, was thrilled with the unexpected contents.

You seldom get that feeling from an email. In fact, the two most prevalent sensations, for me at least, seem to be a feeling of obligation to respond immediately and guilt if I don’t.  And then I feel guilty that I am feeling guilty, because I know that any pressure is coming from me rather than from the sender’s expectations… and I should know better.

On the other hand, I love being able to stay in touch so easily, with no waiting on tenterhooks for replies that took weeks by snail mail. I would hate to lose the ease of communication we have today… even a few hours with an enforced lack of access feels strange and frustrating. Yet, most email communication is pretty terse and to the point, including mine. Most of us use a different ‘voice’ with electronic communication than we would use in writing a letter. There is less of ourselves on the screen than there is on the page. Perhaps it is a hangover from many of us having first used email for business purposes.

I always found a personal letter to be a very different thing from an email, and emotions are often easier to express in writing than they are in person. Face to face, many of us find our words constrained, out tongues tied, and our feelings difficult to express… even with those to whom we would say the most if we could only find the words.

And yet, (apart from the dratted bills, which I am convinced are sent by demons with a warped sense of humour and execrable timing) behind every communication, in no matter what form it arrives, is another human being. ‘To communicate’… it is a verb, a ‘doing’ word, and comes from the Latin for ‘sharing’ and that should say it all really. Communication is always a sharing… there may be as much being shared in the space between the words as in the words themselves, and even a delayed response may tell its own story.

We may not pour our hearts onto the screen in the same way as we might once have poured them into our letters, but there is always a heart behind the fingers that type. Each heart has its own story, and while some may be closed or hardened, others stand wide open, waiting to share all they hold. Whether we communicate with laughter or with silence, in clipped phrases or in flowery periods, we are always speaking heart to heart, even if we do not realise it at the time.

Under the sun…

Image: panayota via Pixabay

“Thirteen thousand miles… How is that even possible???”

We were talking about distances, my son and I, and having established that the Great Wall of China seems impossible, we then discussed the relative distance of the moon from the earth, swiftly progressing to how navigation by the stars actually works when they, and we, are constantly in motion. A relatively minor leap took us to technology and the advances we have seen over the past decades… a conversation, I imagine, that all generations have had since mankind first picked up a stick or stone as a tool.

“Tomorrow’s kids won’t have that same sense of wonder, will they?” No, that wasn’t from me, it was my son… though I have said the self-same words in the past. Thinking of my three year old grandaughter, who calmly snaffles my phone to see pictures of my dog or plays educational games on the tablet she uses at pre-school, it was me that was left wondering…

I am of a generation who watched the men behind the banks of computers during the moon landings. Yes, we had computers back then… though not in domestic situations… Our household didn’t get the first proper, fully functional multimedia PC until the late nineties, though we had ensured the boys had grown up with the ‘new’ technology, recognising its potential. I still have fond memories of the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. They were, apart from the Atari, our first introduction as a family to the world of computer games and titles like Stormlord and Hobgoblin still live in visual memory.

For my son’s generation it was the advent of telecommunications. Mobile phones that made the descent from science fiction to real life. The Nokia seemed to be in every pocket at one point and ‘3210’ became a name, not a number. The internet. Wi-fi… and now we have smartphones and wrist units straight out of science fiction, that do and store everything.

There is more processing power in a modern smartphone than in the Apollo computers, it is said… though that is almost like comparing a camera obscura to a DSLR, given the levels of technological advancement and the rapidity with which they have evolved.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9

Yet stripped back to basics there really is nothing ‘new’. What we have is an evolution in the complexity of a few basic ideas and the development of the technology that puts those ideas into useable form. Once upon a time we simply had movement…man walked and ran. Eventually he worked out that a horse could do that better and quicker and invented transport. Perhaps, from that point onwards interstellar travel became inevitable. In the same way communication developed, from what were probably grunts and body language through speech, writing and messengers, to carrier pigeons, telegraph, telephone…. And how far are we from a brain to brain interface? Well, actually… that’s already been done.

The possibilities are endless, really. What use we choose to make of those possibilities is another matter perhaps. From the first healing herb to a cure for cancer… from the first stone that was thrown to nuclear weapons…

Yet, some things do not change. How much have our basic human needs and their attendant emotions, positive and negative, changed in the couple of million years or so since we became the species we are today? Probably no more than is reflected in the stories we tell of our interactions with each other, the needs of survival, of life, love and death… and the need to seek something beyond the material world.

Fear was born of the simple need to survive. That it is now more often applied in social situations rather than to ensure physical survival is more a reflection on the way our society has evolved. But there is no reason to suppose that the parental instinct of the first humans was any less than that love a mother feels today. No reason to suppose we could not feel tenderness or compassion then as we do now. A hundred thousand years ago we created beauty, we buried gifts with our dead, surely a proof of love or respect. Emotions, it seems do not change much. Cultural differences may colour their expression, time may change the social mores…but although our technologies advance at a truly fantastic rate we, it seems… or at least our emotions… do not.

Will our children and our children’s children still feel that sense of wonder? I used to worry that they would not. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think that yes, how can they not? We did… There will always be a new love to fill the heart with butterflies. A new birth to gaze upon in awe… a new dawn to blaze in glory across the sky… a new advance in technology, a new discovery under the ocean, in outer, or indeed inner space. The world is full of wonders… and perhaps the greatest wonder of all is that, young or old, we can know and feel all of their gifts.

Snail’s pace

The internet was playing up, the email account had been hacked yet again, pages were taking up to ten minutes each to load and anything that had images or video took longer. It was going to be one of those days. It seems to be a common problem and it makes trying to work exceedingly difficult as well as frustrating. It highlights just how dependant we have become on a technology that really is quite new. Society has adopted computers and the internet wholesale and within a generation we have, rather than finding a little slot within our lives into which it might fit, changed our entire lifestyle to work with it.

It is amazing when you really look at it…millions of people use the internet daily; the world, or so it feels, would simply collapse in so many ways without its possibilities yet, when my own children were young, it did not exist. So many technological advances within a lifetime or two that have completely changed the face of the world. Television and communications media, transport… cars and flight that were once the privilege of the few who could afford them are now a part of normality…There are probably more and stranger things out there than the writers of the Jetsons, could have imagined in 1962. Mobile phones… more people own one than have decent sanitation, apparently… what does that say about us as a global family, I wonder?

Even the way we communicate has changed with instant messaging, video calls, text and email. We ‘speak’ to people all around the globe every day, time and distance no longer matter, spontaneous comments can be sent in a millisecond, news shared in a nanosecond. We are more aware of global events and can participate in them in real time, seeing pictures and hearing sounds almost as they happen and sharing the ensuing emotions with those caught in the midst of the unfolding moment. The downside of that is the risk of desensitisation as we are daily faced with images of atrocity and tragedy that we can simply accept as part of the human condition. We take a stand for or against a cause, but the images that should move us have lost their edge… we forget that these are women, children, fathers, sons… like our own. Real human lives edged in blood… closer than at any time in history, yet, in many ways, more distant through habituation.

The double edged sword that opens the world for us to explore also isolates us from face to face interaction in many ways. If it were not for the dog and caring for my son daily, I would no longer need a voice for weeks on end. I see no-one and speak seldom when at home; suburbia becomes a hermitage for many as social interaction becomes virtual and we lose the warmth of a human smile or the touch of a hand as we speak.

Handwritten letters are now a rarity and, if you’ll pardon me for waxing romantic, you can’t tie emails up with ribbon and keep them for a lifetime… printing them out is just not the same. How much of our real, personal histories will we be able to leave for future generations from passworded accounts and encrypted documents… and would it be the same without the trace of a human hand on paper?

Veracity too has taken a hit. Not so long ago a letter was either real or forged; now the printed word can be subtly altered, a word here or there that changes the focus, softens an edge or alters the emotive content. Images are tweaked, ‘photoshopped’… a new verb along with ‘googling’ to enter our language. We run to the internet for information when we know there is a huge amount of inaccuracy online, yet, of course, there is also a vast store of knowledge, art, literature and opinion available to us at the touch of a key… more than ever before in history.

We have adopted the new technology and will, no doubt, do the same when the ‘internet of things’ comes into our lives and every gadget we own is capable of communicating vital information about our statistics and habits. Once again there is the potential for enormous good as well as the capacity for abuse, misuse and an Orwellian future. We can’t even say it is ‘up to us’ as we, the ordinary people, will have little voice when there is large-scale corporate profit involved.

We are, however, incredibly adaptable creatures. Since the advent of the technological revolution that has become such an intrinsic element of our everyday lives we have managed to acquire new skills, create a common language to deal with them and accept a whole string of new terms for hitherto unknown events and needs. We seem to be developing a new skillset for communication that is, perhaps, more aware than ever of the use of language itself. Purists may rail against ‘text-ese’ terms and abbreviations and particularly the ubiquitous emoticon, but the more I look at the etymology of words since working on the books, the more I see that this is what we have always done and how our modern language has evolved from its ancient counterparts.

Emoticons allow us to take a possibly perceived sting out of our words or express something beyond them. They have evolved an unspoken protocol of their own and can both instigate and terminate a deeper conversation. We even seem to be evolving a kind of sixth sense that can read between words to emotions. As always, with the written word much depends on the reader’s own inner voice and character and it is easy to wall oneself in within the ego and miss the kernel of hurt, the laughter, longing or raillery in the words of another. Mind you, we can just as easily fail to see those things when they are in front of our eyes if we are too caught up in our own lives. Yet those with any kind of empathy or care for their fellow man seem able to pick up a good deal from a curt status update on social media, or through a brief text or email. It is as if lacking the visual clues of body language and expression, the timbre of a voice or the averted eyes we have learned to read them in the choice of word and the turn of a phrase.

I wonder if, as we move into a new phase of technological adventure, we are also moving towards a need to concentrate more on the unseen skills of being human; those abstract, unquantifiable qualities such as awareness, discretion and empathy and exercise a more mature and conscious attention and discrimination where our interactions are concerned. At no time in the history of our species has there been such possibility for communication and understanding, or for man to unite behind common goals… and, of course, the obverse of that is also true. In that, at least, it is up to us, as individuals, to choose which way we go.

Though it would help if our internet connections were actually reliable…

Man and Machine

https://scvincent.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/250px-jetsons.jpg

“What’s the first letter of the alphabet?”

“A…”

“Okay… then turn it to A.”

“Okaaay…”

“Now twiddle the little whirly thing all the way…”

This conversation came to you courtesy of mother and son. No, not a toddler and young mother… the son is nearly 30… and Mum still has all her marbles… well, I like to think I do. My sons would beg to differ on that point, of course. As  matter of principle.

This was a highly technical conversation… but he’d lost me early on so he decided to dumb it down a bit.

My son is teaching himself photography, and while I am seldom found without a camera in my hand I have no real understanding of the mechanics of the thing beyond the basic optics I learned in physics. I certainly don’t have a fraction of his technical ability… and he’s trying to share that with me. Mostly unsuccessfully, I have to add.

I’m not bad with technology, though, as a rule. It doesn’t scare me and I can generally work it out. My sons, however, have grown in an era when the technological advances come so thick and fast into our everyday lives that while they have developed an almost instinctive understanding of it, I question whether we have almost lost the sense of wonder as we daily see the science fiction of our childhood become mundane gadgetry. Some of the stuff we use every day has outstripped anything those of us who watched the first moon landing might have imagined as possible. We even take for granted the way we can type on a screen and be read instantaneously all across the world. Technology is in every corner of our lives.

Even the dog is microchipped.

Yet for all the incredible gadgets around us, it is the ‘human’ things that still move us the most. I include Ani in this category. Not because she clearly thinks she is head of the household (and she may well be right about that…) but because it is through very human qualities that we interact.

I was crying earlier… call me a wuss, or whatever local epithet fits best…. There was a video. One of those from dog rescues… and we’ve probably all stumbled across many of them. Old dog dying in the street, rescued, cleaned, fed and given a  home for what were literally its final few hours. They could have put the dog to sleep given the state it was in, but chose instead to give a little care and allow the dog to know companionship, touch and love.

As she always does, Ani picked up straight away on the tears, and I watched the video with her head on my knee, my hands in her fur as she waited in stillness until she decided I was ready to be cheered up and brought the ball.

Those few minutes sort of said it all really. While my mind and emotions reacted to the story that technology brought to my attention, the physical sense of touch and warmth, the comfort of an aware presence that cares enough to respond to changing emotions, the love I feel for the little monster whose muddy paw prints currently decorate the sofa… again… all were engaged and very present.

It made me think about how real our lives are.

Virtual reality through television, computers, smartphones and the like is a constant bombardment of information, stimulating the mind and emotions… but only if we allow them to. We can also lose ourselves in the detachment and distance that technology allows. We can allow the bombardment to numb the mind and emotions. Yet when we treat them as the tools they are and allow ourselves to see and feel, they open a wealth of possibilities to us.

But those possibilities would have no meaning for us if we had nothing to relate them to. Would I have wept at the video if I had never loved a dog? Or simply if I had never loved? Or laughed with my son at the role reversal as he tried to explain as if to a child, had I never experienced that before?

More than ever we have the world of experience at our fingertips. And all experience matters, as it fuels our understanding of the world around us… and the world within. We can let it wash over us as mindless waves as we vegetate in front of a box, or we can use it as the building blocks of growth.

It reminds me of the Lego days… days when we would empty the box of mismatched bricks on the floor… and like experience, they hurt if you tread on them with bare feet… but the possibilities for the imagination to take flight were endless. Even if the shapes were angular, the aeroplanes unflightworthy and the castles just miniatures… you could build something that could transport you to another place where imagination changed all the rules and anything was possible.

The fabric of being

We all know them, that handful of people who cling to a reactionary refusal to own a mobile phone… or turn it on when they do… or bother to check it. Or they don’t really like computers or social media. You can’t get hold of them, they pass their lives in a state of technological invisibility and you wonder how on earth they can survive…

Or… you secretly envy them their anonymity and accepted state of unavailability…

It is not so very long ago that communication was less intense, relying on ‘local’ calls and handwritten letters. The reliability of the mail was legendary, if slow, and such missives could be cherished or responded to in a timely fashion… say, a week or two. And that was okay. These days, ‘radio silence’ presses the panic buttons… people, including ourselves most of the time, expect an instant response. We have, very quickly, learned to live in a world that responds at the touch of a button and very often we seem to expect people to do the same. It is all about ‘now’.

Technological advances have not only changed our world, but our expectations, both of ourselves and others. We have, over the course of a couple of generations, seen a complete redesign of our daily lifestyles. We no longer have to beat carpets or black lead the range. Laundry is done, and even dried, at the touch of a button instead of the labour intensive wash-day that saw, even in my own childhood, coppers boiling, wash-boards and mangles at dawn and the flat irons heating in the embers of the black-leaded grate. Food no longer needs to be grown or prepared and ‘gourmet’ meals can be purchased ready-made from the supermarket chiller cabinet. And although, with the loss of cooking skills, the understanding of food and nutrition is being eroded, we can, of course, always take supplements…obviating even the need to chew.

Our days… assuming that our technologies are working as they should… have been freed of many constraints. We have more potential leisure time than we have ever had in the history of mankind… and many of us ironically turn to some kind of technological gadgetry with which to fill it. Meanwhile old skills are becoming obsolete… how many of us still know how to starch a shirt, for example? Do we need to know… do we even care? Most of us would emphatically answer in the negative… but are we really right to do so? Because it isn’t just the skills that are lost…

It isn’t exactly about how to dress a flawless shirt that crackles when you move… what I am thinking of here is the amount of care we put into the small, humdrum acts of daily life. The generations-old christening robe or wedding veil would not have survived this long had someone not learned to understand its fabric and spent time and effort on its care and preservation. With today’s wash-and-go fabrics, would we do the same? Do our email conversations hold the same place in our hearts as the bundle of faded, handwritten letters? Time and attention, a learned skill, a labour of love…

Anyone who has ever created a work of art or craft will know that feeling of pride and satisfaction when it is completed and you step back to look at the finished article. Anyone who cooks from scratch or watches the slow growth and ripening of fruit in the garden knows they taste different from their pretty, shop-bought cousins. Not just because of the obvious commercial factors, but simply because you have come to know the tree, the plant and the soil… you have watered and fed and watched as they grew and the relationship thus built with the fruit is personal. The care, time and attention we give to any object or task has a direct correlation to the value we place upon it and the relationship we build with it… a relationship that involves us on all levels, from the physical work involved, to the mental use of knowledge to the emotions it engenders. What we really earn, we value. What is done with love… like a child’s first scrawled painting of a parent… is valued. For the rest, we live in a society that allows for few things to impinge upon our hearts; our possessions often little more than visible symbols of our success that we can wear as a badge of status to convince others, and thus reassure ourselves of our worth. It sometimes seems that the biggest loss of all over the past generation or two is a lack of true value for ourselves.

We no longer know how to define ourselves; there is a lack of confidence in our identities, a pervasive uncertainty in our relationships with ourselves. Perhaps this is one reason why more and more people are turning towards the many spiritual paths made more accessible by the very technology that allows us the time to study them. Sadly, there are all too many pseudo-spiritual schemes on the market, profiteering from this need and offering little more than comforting reassurance, usually at a premium price. Or ways to achieve all with minimal effort… well, someone is doing well from these schemes, but it is seldom the sincere seeker of inner truth and harmony who profits…

scarf3

The spiritual journey is almost like laundering a garment. What we do will depend on what we seek from and for it in the longer term. Is this something we would wear for a season and discard, or something we hope will last a lifetime and beyond? A garment can come in every shade of the rainbow and the method of care of cotton is unsuitable for silk. Each is unique, yet shares a common underlying need.

When we are new and unworn, we are fresh and unblemished. Everyday life gradually adds its creases, stains and soiling and there is a point where we realise that we must do something about it or watch a steady deterioration that takes the garment beyond beauty. The first turning towards the path of the soul is comparable to a light wash… an initial cleansing that can be enough to freshen and maintain the garment in serviceable condition. We can go on that way for a long time, but without proper care the garment will, inevitably, begin to fade and pass a point where it will appear able to be restored to its pristine condition.

If, on the other hand, we look at the garment and take careful stock of its condition, learning to understand its fabric, identifying the damage and the individual stains and learning what they are so we can then learn how to remove them specifically, we can cleanse the garment with thorough and loving care. If we want to restore its pristine nature, we might learn how to properly ‘dress’ the garment… realising that its newly cleaned brightness may have to go back to the water to be dipped and soaked in starch… wrung into further creases and left to try in its own time, before being carefully smoothed with the heat of the iron. We may not know how to proceed… but we will know who will or where to search for those skills forgotten or unlearned. There is always someone to turn to who can guide us through the process, though sometimes the advice may seem strange.

It is a long process and there is much to be learned. It isn’t always an easy task, nor is it always a pleasant one. Many give up or prefer to believe that the stain on the front of the garment is something else entirely, not the ketchup they themselves had dropped there. Yet the longer we wait to begin, the more stains and moth-holes we may have to tackle. Restoration takes time, care and attention… which are, oddly enough, the very same qualities that allow us to engage with the things that matter to us most deeply… and which bring a true sense of achievement, value and identity.

In our society we are fast learning to want everything ‘now’. Yet the things we still value most are those that we work for, those we earn… those things that are worth waiting for. We do not expect to get such items without care and effort, nor do we expect to see the fruits of such long-term labours materialise immediately, though we may be working hard towards them. Nevertheless, we will see the savings in the bank grow, find our knowledge expanding or our skills improving, day by day, month by month as we turn our efforts and attention towards our goal. There comes, though, a moment when we realise that there was a ‘now’ where we made a start… and there will be a ‘now’ when we achieve our dream… but meanwhile our ‘now’ must be devoted to what we are doing right at this moment on the journey between the two.

The journey through life is unique for each of us, a turning point that may come early or late… some seem born with the starry heavens in their eyes and pursue that vision with all that they are, others seem to seek nothing until the silence of their last moments. Yet all of us, at some point, will question the stains and creases we acquire as life wears our soul. Sometimes, all we have to do is ask…