For many years, I had a cartoon by Michael Leunig on my noticeboard, which articulated one of the hilarious paradoxes of modern life. A father and son sit together, transfixed by a beautiful sunrise on their TV screen, while the real sun rises, unnoticed outside the window behind them.
If it was true fifteen years ago, it’s worryingly, ubiquitously true today. We’re so busy ‘experiencing’ things via our computers, TVs, cameras, phones and social media, that it’s quite possible we’re missing out on actually experiencing anything at all. Think about the last time you went to a concert. When you looked out across the crowd, what did you see? Thousands of blue mobile phone screens, as people held their phones up to photograph or video the show. Remember the good old days, way back in the 80s, when we’d sway through the power ballads, holding a lighter above our heads? There are lots of reasons why that’s not a good idea anymore: naked flames in a crowded concert venue, hardly anyone smokes anymore, and anyway, power ballads just aren’t what they used to be now that artists’ hair is so much smaller. Nevertheless, I’m sure you grasp the analogy. There was a naïve, cheesy, in-the-moment pleasure to be had from the lighter, which is missing when you’re holding up your iPhone and plotting to be the first to upload to YouTube.
Indeed, is anything in life fascinating, funny or tragic anymore if we’re not OMGing or LOLing about it on facebook or twitter? Do you also translate everything in your life into 140-character epigrams as it happens? The Internet is an amazing and wonderful thing and I welcome the way it’s blasted the world of communication wide open in ways we could never have imagined. But I do sometimes wonder if it means we live an externalised, and somehow slightly emptier life than we used to. Yes, yes, we’re all expressing ourselves. And we are, like mad. Social networking, blogging (and I do not miss the irony that I’m blogging this thought right now), discussion forums, comment threads on every news story we read… we’re expressing until we’re blue in the fingers.
It’s a trend which predates the current age of the Internet. Think of the recent tradition of marking road accident sites with flowers and tributes. Think of slogan t-shirts and bumper stickers. Witness the enormous rise of people with tattoos, expressing their affiliations.
I read a report in the paper some months ago about happiness, where the researchers discovered that the happiest group of people were people without financial worries and in good health – and in their seventies. While it’s by no means the whole story, I think that a small part of that happiness may come from having spent the majority of their lives in a pre-‘expression’ era. Maybe they’re just better than us at recognising that a simple, ordinary, everyday moment can contain pure happiness. A perfect cup of tea, the laughter of your children and grandchildren, a lovely garden, a much-loved song. And maybe they’re better at just sitting quietly, happily and alone, in that moment, and then letting it pass.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to turn away from the screen, and look out of the window.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.