Read at The Evening Standard August 2
Forster thought that the new technology would alter our way of thinking and make us more susceptible to ideological manipulation; he also thought we’d eschew direct experience of things in favour of learning about them online. Well, he has a point: at the Ladies’ Final at Wimbledon, I sat next to some intelligent girls who weren’t watching the match because they were tweeting about watching the match.
The reason for the new togetherness is, paradoxically, technology itself. Children bring their tablets and smartphones to the family sofa rather than texting in their bedrooms. It means that we’re not talking only to each other while we’re looking at the telly; half of us use connected devices while we’re watching programmes; a quarter of us are sharing the viewing with other people on social media or text.
So, there’s companionable physical closeness to the rest of the family even if we’re all doing different things. And that’s fair enough. Jane Austen once described a sociable evening in Kent to her sister: “… one card table was formed, the rest of us sat and talked. Some play cards and some do not, or some play one game, and some another”. She wouldn’t have recognised a situation where some of the conversations are done by busy fingers with distant friends, but the notion of people engaged in different activities while sitting together was normal.
The difference is that the people in Jane Austen’s room would have been present to each other in a way that you’re not if you’re tweeting people outside it. Yet this is contemporary togetherness: family members doing their own thing while engaging in common viewing; keeping in touch with friends about Britain’s Got Talent while looking at it with their mum.