Many years ago I read a science fiction story which for some reason stuck in my head. This did not happen often with science fiction stories and I have read very few of them for a long time. The story concerns an old man, running a small farm by himself, and painfully lonely since the death of his beloved wife. One day a small spaceship crashes on his plot. In it he finds a small furry alien creature. He takes it home, binds up its wounds, experiments until he finds something it will eat, and nurses it back to health. The alien then mimes an interest in the spacecraft, and he brings the wreckage in from an outhouse. The alien settles down to repairs, and eventually gets stuck. A particular material is needed.
After many offerings it turns out to be gold. The old fellow, with some misgivings, digs out his life savings and melts them down. The repairs are a success. The alien prepares to leave. As a parting gift it gives the old man a small odd-shaped piece of metal. The effect of this is strange. When he holds it in his hand he no longer feels the aching loneliness to which he was used before his furry friend arrived. He feels instead a warm and companionable happiness. In the last paragraph the author, who has previously described everything from the point of view of the man, suddenly gets inside the alien’s head and produces a quote which (from memory) goes something like this: “It would be lonely in the wastes of inter-stellar space without the Comforter. But the earthling had been very kind, and those who travel far must travel light. There had been nothing else to give.”
Now when this story was written, which I suppose was in the 60s, the idea of the small odd-shaped piece of metal which you held in your hand to stave off loneliness was as outlandish as the spaceship. Nowadays I am not so sure. When you travel on public transport these days it seems that nine tenths of your fellow passengers are clutching a piece of metal. It is called a mobile phone, but this is a misleading convention because most of them are clearly not making phone calls. Nor do I believe that many of them are fielding peremptory emails from some distant boss. They play games, read messages, look at Facebook, or engage in other online pursuits, to avoid being left alone with themselves. Or so the current theory goes.
A recent book commented on the fact, not perhaps an original thought, that people currently in their middle age or later are a unique generation. They are part of the wired world, but they can remember what it was like before. “Digital natives” who got their first iPad before they could read have everything – except the memory of how people managed when a phone was just a piece of black plastic tethered to the wall over which you could have short conversations.
There are certainly young people about who make no bones of the fact that they feel extremely uncomfortable, even depressed, if not connected. I am not convinced by the theory that this is rewiring brains, so that the victims are no longer capable of undertaking long demanding tasks which require concentration. After all people still get degrees, still master difficult skills like playing an instrument really well, still read War and Peace – an achievement which has eluded me. I get fed up with that Russian arrangement under which everyone has three names and give up.
On behalf of us pre-digitals I must also admit that though I rarely look at my mobile phone when travelling, I do not sit there staring at the wall either. I either provide a treat for nostalgic fellow-travellers by reading a book, or baffle most of them by playing an electric bagpipe. This is not as anti-social as it sounds because it has earphones. I do not feel as if my brain has been rewired by looking at YouTube, and I never could finish Russian novels, which seems to be the accomplishment most in danger, according to writers like Nicholas Carr (“The Shallows”) or Neil Swidey (“The end of alone”). I also note that phone addiction is much less conspicuous in London, because the local counterpart of the MTR does not have mobile connectivity, and travellers do not look any less happy than they do in Hong Kong, where everyone has their own small screen.
Still some caution is in order. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of our Nature, suggests that the invention of printing changed human nature radically, and in particular the reading of novels led to a great increase in the willingness and ability to consider and sympathise with the feelings of other people. This is a major historic switch and suggests that we may be playing with fire here. If reading Moll Flanders could awake your inner angel, what is Facebook doing for you?