I am sitting in my kitchen with the Love Zone playing romantically in the background. Songs about holding, touching, kissing, loving.... and the dog's getting mighty sick of me going over for a hug. She's not that partial to the two-step either. I haven't tried a Waltz... She did, however, perk up when I rattled the snack packet. Sigh.
Tonight I had a long visit from a French friend of mine; a very attractive one, at that. And ten years' younger than me. The only thing we have in common is that we are both single. She has been single for 8 years, me slightly less but single nonetheless. And it's not for lack of trying to meet folk, but it seems Ireland has moved very firmly into the 21st century and social chat sites and texting is the new way to date. Somehow it kind of lacks that personal touch? Remember that? When people actually spent time together, and emotions were judged by the eyes, not the punctuation? Comfort was felt by warm arms, not a smiley face. God, I hate those smiley faces, I'd like to smash every one of them to smithereens. Emoticons, they are called. One to depict every emotion you may be feeling. In a text.
Is this what new life has evolved to being, or is it our age? Have we inadvertently become so embroiled in technology that we've forgotten how to be human?
I was training one of the largest technological companies in the world last week. I had fourteen people sitting in a semi-circle, no more than six inches from their neighbour, yet there was no eye contact. Instead, they were all tap-tapping away importantly on their laptops, eyes averted, heads down, as I waited patiently for one of them to realise I was ready to start.
"Do me I favour," I started. "Put those damn things down, put them under your seats." Guiltily, one by one, they all complied and offered me their attention for the duration of the training. "Isn't it terrible," I asked them, "that none of you have taken the time to say hello to the person sitting right next to you?" I then proceeded to make them turn to the person on their left, and introduce themselves. These are people that work together every day, eight hours a day, and actually have never taken the time to get to know more than one or two people around them, this company that houses over 3000 employees on a daily basis. They have no idea whether the person next to them is happy, sad, struggling, shy, introvert or extrovert. Whether they have brothers, sisters, partners, wives, husbands, children. Instead, every ounce of their focus is solely placed upon the electronic device in front of them, the only means of connection to other (human) computers possibly sitting only a few yards from them. I find that unbelievably sad.
"I have no computer," I said. "Well, actually I do, but it's here, in my head. I have no fancy equipment, I have no overhead slides or media aids to change your minds today. I only have the most powerful and original computer known to man, and I intend to push your buttons today until you wake up your own. Are you ready?" Suddenly we had connection - we had human connection and sparked interest, and the electronic devices lay obsolete between their feet for the rest of the day.
I belong to a social networking site; I am as guilty as everyone else of suffering isolation, of sitting in front of a computer screen "chatting" to like-minded strangers, sharing one-liners, having a laugh, sometimes being bored out of my tree. And as I was typing yet another retort the other night, I suddenly felt so old. Here I was, hoping to meet new friends with whom to share good times, perhaps head out to watch a show, or a band, have a meal, see a movie, yet the chances of that happening were sub-zero with the way socialising has gone. I was never going to meet any of these people. Some were faceless, preferring rather to interact anonymously. Regardless, the personality will eventually unfold through the written word, whether the author believes that to be true nor not. Each of these people, like me, were sitting probably on their own, in their homes, in front of a screen, talking to other invisible people and convincing themselves that it was good company, that it whiled away another night where live conversation was not available. Ridiculous. And never-ending as long as that "log on" button was being activated. It is addictive. It becomes part of your nightly ritual. You feel you may be missing out on something wonderful if you don't log on for a night. And that, in itself, is extremely worrying.
So I have stopped. For now.
Now I spend most of my time alone, so technology has allowed me to remain in virtual contact with people, in the vain hope that it will fill a void. But it cannot, how can it? How can pushing a few buttons and adding a smiley face replace live chat with a real human being who likes being in your company? It's like trying to fill a bucket that has a perpetual hole in it - a fruitless, pointless waste of your time.
Perhaps you are lucky. Perhaps you venture out and meet one of these people, and you become friends. On opposite sides of the country. And so your textual relationship begins. "Hello, how's things?" "What are you up to?" "How was your day?" "What did you have for dinner?"
Who gives a shit. How is answering these mundane questions ever going to give you what you really seek : a real, live human being with whom to share everyday mundane things, but at least they will be real, like cutting the grass. Doing the dishes. Cooking. Snuggling up in front of the fire. Chatting. Oh my God, remember chatting? Laughing? For real, not online.
I have a 3x4 keypad on my phone, but it has a mind of its own and often replaces letters with numbers I have not asked for, or predicted what I want to say - how dare it do that? It's rarely right anyway, as I found out recently when I texted a client to say that I would leave documents for collection in my car, before realising my car has autolock. So I quickly rectified the message and pressed send. The next day, said client texted me to say he had never laughed as much as he did at my text. What did I say?
"My ass locks automatically; I'll leave it at the front door instead." My ass. Locks. Automatically. Oh. My. God.
Have we lost the ability to interact with each other on a meaningful level? Has texting replaced a genuine smile, a warm body to snuggle up to, a comforting hand on your shoulder after a bad day? I'm afraid on a lot of levels, it has. You have to watch the tone of your words - yes, the tone - because you no longer have a voice to judge it by. So many messages can be misconstrued, misinterpreted, misunderstood, ending in arguments, and hurt (virtual) feelings. Emphasised with an emoticon. :-)
Even Facebook, people have taken to writing what they've had for breakfast, how they're feeling, what they're doing - who the hell cares? Yet there we are, checking our pages daily just in case, just in case, we miss breaking world news. I used to love getting a handwritten letter in through the door when postie arrived. Making a cup of tea and settling down to read what a friend had written, taken the time to do, sat down and thought of me specially, and written - by hand - a lovely, long, newsy letter bringing me up to speed on their lives because we were separated by oceans and continents away from each other. Now? Now I get hurriedly sent emails telling me how busy they are and they'll get to me eventually. Thanks for that. Nice to know I am on someone's list, albeit at the bottom of the pile.
I have a few letters in my collection box, which one day will be collectors' items and probably worth a fortune. I have a handwritten note, dated 1945, written as a reference about my father, by his school Principal. The writing is beautiful, cursive, in fountain pen ink, the letters uniform and flowing, showing a little personality, a little care. I have a love letter written by my first boyfriend when I was about twenty, that is so poetic and beautiful coming from such a manly man, and it is a treasure. It still evokes tears when I read it, because it transports me back to the very moments we shared, and all the feelings are evoked all over again. Real life. Real people. Today, when you apply for a job, you don't even get an electronic response. What the hell has happened to society?
So do you find yourself involved in a virtual relationship with a virtual man sharing virtual conversations? Do you listen to love songs on the radio and send a text to let them know you are thinking of them when you do? It's funny that no songs have been written about textual love yet. I am surprised, and am sure that it will come. Am not so sure, however, that it will catch on.
"Text me, baby, one more time"?
"I love the way you text me"?
"I can't help falling in text with you"?
"I'm getting texted in the morning"?
People these days make out via text. They have arguments by text. They make up by text. And they break up by text. Possibly without ever having met. I understand that long-distance relationships are hard; both parties are busy with their own lives in their own region. But surely, if you are after the same thing, there will come a time when phones need to be pushed aside and plans made to close the gap between you? Or will it continue to be textual, with an occasional live visit just to make sure all the working parts are still in order? Every time you meet will be like the first time, if there's large gaps between visits. It's like a treadmill relationship, on the spot, going nowhere in a hurry.
There have always been jokes made about women and batteries. How we keep a spare set in our drawers for when those lonely nights come a-calling. Be that as it may, at least batteries still let you feel something, pardon the pun. I spend more money on charging my phone these days, running to the sound of a beep, and being disappointed time and time again by the content. Need I remind you: "Hey, how are you?" "How's your day going?" "What are you up to?" Like I said before, who gives a shit, really.
Wouldn't it be nice to at least see, "Hi, would you like to go out for a bite to eat tonight? Catch a movie? Go for a walk? Have a coffee?" Any one of those would surely beat another night sitting at home either in front of a screen, or staring at your phone wondering when, if ever, the time will come when we can happily use it again for what it was originally intended : to make contact so that further plans can be put in place for real life to continue.
I hate virtual reality. My heart beats. I am woman. And I need man. Not an Iphone. And if I am to be at the bottom of anyone's list of to-do's, then he'd better keep texting virtual women, because I won't be around for too long.