An interviewee on BBC Radio 4 Today recently, I think it was the sister of the murdered Member of Parliament Jo Cox said something along the lines of how, before we all got tied to our smartphones, we used to talk to each other in the street. That may well have been true in some small rural communities and is probably the case in some places, but I doubt it was ever really true on the streets of London or any other big city, at least not within living memory.
Nevertheless, without wanting to be a broflake or trigger a youthquake. It’s vaguely worth saying that we each used to know a few dozen people, the average villager before the industrial revolution and perhaps well into the twentieth century would have a connection with rarely more than a couple of hundred people (the approximate Dunbar number). Now our “village” has thousands if not millions of residents, people we barely know and most of whom we never meet. Any one of whom might summarily take umbrage at some perceived slight, be offended by an off-hand statement, criticism, or other remark. Something that might have been laughed off in the working fields or down the pub, but no more.
In an era when “banter is bullying” it’s as if we’re all snowflakes. That slight against one’s personality becomes a pinprick to the bubble and the riposte and response can quickly amplify as social media sees and seizes the opportunity to exploit the novelty of its viral infections. An unguarded comment, a risque remark, a comic criticism quickly disturbs the Wi-Fi ether, wiggles the pipelines under the oceans that make our village global and often disrupt our lives in unforeseen ways. In fact, increasingly the lives of “everyday” people, are being shattered if not entirely ruined by the ruminations of the great online unwashed. Celebrities fall from grace, they always did. Politicians are smeared, and often rightly so. But, for the prole, the pleb, the peasant, life can become just as unpleasant at the hands of the angry virtual mob.
With billions of updates every second, swathes of selfish selfies, texting, sexting, doxing, unboxing, outfoxing and all that blocks-ing, where will it end? I certainly don’t hanker for the time when we each had a social whirl limited by the muddy tracks leading in and out of the village and social networking meant an annual barn dance on the night of the harvest moon, but sometimes I wonder whether that notion of six degrees of separation might occasionally do us more harm than good. Like those data pipes under the ocean they’re now so worried the Russians might slice, perhaps we occasionally need six degrees of insulation. Perhaps this holiday/festive season/Winterval, we should all have a proper digital detox and disconnect our own data pipes, at least until the New Year. And, on that note, here’s wishing you festive felicitations. Happy Whatever!