They ARE the matrix

3 04 2013

We are living in a world of immediacy.

A world where the whole of the knowledge accrued by mankind can be accessed from a device that fits in the back pocket of my jeans.

When I was at school information was held in books, some of which were held at home while most had to be accessed through the library; a process which involved having tickets stamped, negotiating random opening times and fierce librarians, overdue book charges and not a small amount of reverence. Now my parents text me if they are unsure of an answer in Kate Mepham’s Sunday crossword and, if I don’t know either, I google and text back an answer.

My romances were conducted on the single telephone that we had in the house, while sitting on a small table/chair combination which had been designed specially for this purpose. Intimacies were exchanged in hushed tones as the rest of the family trooped past going about their business. While I write this, on an early afternoon train out of Edinburgh, the young woman opposite is having a mobile phone conversation with a friend. She is urging her friend not to follow/stalk her possibly errant boyfriend and giving detailed advice about how to ensure that he doesn’t stray while on holiday.

While at university I wrote letters to my boyfriend and agonised nightly over what I would say. Telephone conversations involved complex timetabling arrangements to make sure that he was standing beside his college payphone at the exact time that I rang from mine. Now texts have replaced letters, instant thoughts taking the place of tortured scribblings and the idea of arranging a time to talk, laughable.

I was, for reasons that I cannot now remember, thinking back recently to having my photograph taken in Lewis’s in Liverpool. This was a once-a-year event. I’d be dressed in my Sunday best for a visit to see Santa in his grotto and on to the in-store photographer. These photographs were included with the Christmas gifts to grandparents and aged aunts, all of whom cherished them, as I still do.  The train this morning was full of children on their Easter holidays taking photographs and being photographed. Instant images.

These thoughts are not about looking back to some imagined golden age but are by way of illustrating what a completely different world it is now to the one I grew up in. I understand as little about the way the generation below me is immersed in this world of instant communication than I understand about the world without electricity that my grandparents grew up in.  My lived experience is one of having heat and light available at the flick of a switch. The lived experience of the younger generation is one of instant access to everyone and everything.

They live in this space.

I stand outside the internet and use it to access the services, books and information that I have always accessed, just in a new way.

They are integral to the internet. They ARE the matrix.

In taking photographs on the train this morning they were not sharing the moment – they were the moment. They are at once creating and confirming their own identity and existence in a way that I cannot hope to fully comprehend. The internet to them is not the same as it is for me.

When they take their pictures, post inappropriate tweets, create Facebook alter egos they do not, for them, have relevance beyond that moment. They simply say, this is me now. I knew that my letters would have a life beyond the moment that I wrote them. The photographs taken in Lewis’s had, and were meant to have, a significance beyond that day. The act of sending a text or posting a picture on-line has the aura of permanence to us older folk but has no such association for young people. Texts are sent with the same abandon that we used to share confidences in the pub – transient and of little importance.

I have the strong feeling that this immediacy and lack of permanence might be why young people are so willing to share their lives so widely on the internet in a way that alarms us older people. But of course I cannot know for sure. And that is the point.

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