Smartphone-loving Adam Gopnik is no technophobe. But there's something stopping him from joining the social media revolution.
"I do not twitter, and yet there are thousands who wait for me to tweet." That sentence, which would have been a spoken symptom of madness, a crazy man's sentence, a few short years ago, is now a simple form of confession. Well, it is a form of insanity, I suppose, but of a different kind.
I'm sure you understood what I meant - that, while I have a Twitter account, I almost never use it. I'm not sure why I don't. Partly because there seems something embarrassing, self-advertising about it. Partly because I just don't have the habit. My 14-year-old daughter not only sends tweets. She speaks tweets. If I say, for instance, that I never Google myself, she replies: "Hashtag: Obvyliesdadtells." Yet I have many Twitter followers - only because everyone even marginally "public" does. And I leave them unsatisfied, untweeted.
Nonetheless, I'm not convinced that never tweeting is actually very different from tweeting all the time. I am, you see, neither an optimist nor a pessimist about social media, neither an enthusiast nor a Luddite. I am what might be called a steady state technologist. Everyone insists that the technological transformation of the daily shape of our lives by new gadgets is enormous, while allowing that their emotional effect is more dubious, leaving us with emptier, or at best, unaltered souls. I think the truth is closer to the direct reverse. The emotional effect of new devices is overwhelming - they are like having new pets, new children, trailing with them an overwhelming attachment. But the transformational effect they have on our lives is actually, looked at squarely and without sentiment, quite minimal. After the introduction of a new device, or social media, our lives are exactly where they were before, save for the new thing or service, which we now cannot live without.
I couldn't live without my computer, for instance. The idea of going back to a typewriter - a thing with keys that clack and an inky ribbon that jumps - is impossible to imagine. But my professional writing life is neatly divided between the typewriting era and the word-processing era, and I was exactly as productive when I was banging keys and struggling with correcting fluid as I am now that it's all instant cut-and-paste and spell-check. The most productive writers who ever lived preceded even the typewriter. Would Dickens or Balzac have written an extra line without it? How could they? They had no time. They made our industry seem like torpor, our era's idea of energy look like stasis. To describe my relationship to my laptop I need the language of affection - I need it, I depend on it, I'm attached to it, I would be bereft without it - more than the language of real necessity. I couldn't do my work without it? Well, I could. I did.
And, while I merely like my computer, I love my smartphone. I clutch my phone tight to myself, I hold it in my hand like a talisman - a feeling of panic overcomes me when in a strange city I find I have mislaid it, or that I forgot to bring its charger. But though it has altered the shape of my days and hours, has it really altered the life those days add up to and achieve? No - less than a decade ago I had no smartphone at all, and nothing was significantly different in my life... except for the possession of my phone. I never felt particularly remote from my family. I seemed to get all the email I need. The distribution not just of happiness and sadness in my life, but of all the smaller domestic emotions that small domestic devices are presumably there to assist, existed in exactly the same amounts. I talked to my wife as often, I worried about my kids as much, I was in the same amount of contact, or not, with my friends. It is not merely that I got along fine before I had it, but that I got along in exactly the same way - in precisely the same spirit in days that were shaped along exactly the same lines - save for the fact that I was not, then, consulting my smartphone every five minutes. Like so much modern media technology, it creates a dependency without ever actually addressing a need.
Which has us circling back to Twitter, and its discontents. Twitter, spitting out its brief public messages, is given credit for making revolutions - and certainly, throughout the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian and Iranian near-Springs the instant news shared by its tweets raced around the crowds and helped order its actions. But in truth, every popular social revolution since at least the French one has followed (I think) the same pattern - a government weakened by war or financial crisis or both meets popular resistance, which for the first time takes in members of the elite and the masses. They find a meeting space - it could be Tahrir Square or a French real tennis court - and occupy it. Then, in the crucial moment, the army, called on to disperse the mob, identifies with the cause and refuses. The government is forced to surrender. Then, time after time, the best organised of the militant minorities takes over - and then, in 18th Century France or 21st Century Egypt, there is a contest to see if the militant minority can dominate the army or if the army will destroy the militant minority. Whether texted and twittered or papered and pamphleted, the shape of revolution is about the same.
I have, indeed, a larger theory - that while information technology gets all the glamour (mostly because writers use it) all the really great revolutions in modern times have involved transportation more than information. I happened to be reading a letter by the great 19th Century English wit Sydney Smith the other day, where he talks about the transformations of his time. All involve transportation - hansom cabs, steam boats, above all the train: "It took me nine hours to go from Taunton to Bath before the invention of railroads, and I now go in six hours from Taunton to London!" The only other technology he mentions is… the umbrella.
It's true. That I can travel from New York to London overnight really has changed my life. In principle, at least, I can go to interview an artist or rescue a stranded teenager in six hours. That I can send an instant message to London should change my life, but when I review the old and new, the amount seems about the same as it has always been. The speed of human bodies travelling changes, but once the secular miracle of speed-of-light communication was achieved more than a century and a half ago by the telegraph, each advance since has been, so to speak, essentially an advance in envelopes.
Why, then, do we love our smartphones and Twitter apps so much? Because we want to be lovers of our time. The urge to belong to our age is more powerful than the need to use our time efficiently. My kids use text-messaging at every moment. It's painstaking, time-consuming, finger-jamming and ultimately inefficient. "You'd resolve this in a second if you phoned her," I say. But they fear something much worse than being inefficient. They fear being traitors to their time, renegades to their generation.
That it is our desire to be in our time that moves us, is evidenced by a curious block, a kind of pre-emptive amnesia, that all of us share. The one thing about the future that we know for certain - absolutely for sure - is that whatever seems most thrillingly modern now will look most poignantly comic in the future to come. Hashtags and twitter feeds will say "2014" as much as the cranks on cars say, maybe, 1906, or fax machines the 1990s. We know that we will laugh nostalgically when someone in a distant movie set in our era tweets, and acts as though it matters, as we laugh now at the microwave ovens in American Hustle. Knowing that the future will laugh at us, we still cannot take part now in the laughter without being alienated from our age, and that is a sad thing to be. The people from earlier ages who were alienated from theirs - those Luddites and holdouts - get our sympathy but rarely our affection. We love the early adopters (the old, late early adopters I mean) because we see our own selves in their enthusiasm, they mirror our necessary naivete.
So: I shall arise now, and twitter for almost the first time. I will enjoy the brief romance of relevance. Thousands, perhaps, will follow. I have in mind to tweet these simple words: Nothing is real.