My grandfather could have been a poster child for digital inclusion. Born in 1914 in Switzerland, he and his younger brother set up a transportation business and he spent most of his life driving lorries across Europe doing removals. His most famous customer was Charlie Chaplin, who moved to Switzerland in 1953 and apparently relied on my grandfather’s firm to move his possessions into Le Manoir de Ban, a beautiful estate located on Lake Geneva.
In contrast, my grandfather lived a simple life and had few material possessions. Unsurprisingly, he never showed an interest in gadgets or any form of digital technology – that is until he was shown how to use Skype when he was in his nineties. His reaction was immediate. He asked for a PC laptop and would use Skype almost everyday to communicate with his family around the world from his apartment.
Despite being a remarkably fit man, in his late nineties, when it became increasingly difficult to remain mobile, Skype kept him connected to those he cared about, just as television and radio maintained his connection to the world outside.
It was then strangely fitting that his passing away this year at the age of 99 was captured on Skype.
My mother, who had moved back to Switzerland to look after her aging father, was chatting with her sister on Skype as she and my grandfather ate their evening meal. She noticed him eating a bit faster than usual and asked if everything was ok. He responded by saying he was fine, but shortly afterwards slumped in this seat and was gone.
Instead of being left alone to deal with the situation, my mother was able to speak to her sister (a trained nurse) throughout. When it was clear that nothing could be done, she Skype called each of her children, including me, to let us know the sad news. So despite being in another country, within an hour of his death, I was able to view my grandfather’s face and say goodbye, which as strange as it may sound, brought a great deal of comfort.
All of this illustrates the degree to which our lives and deaths are being played out on digital channels.
“Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” Woody Allen
It was television that brought the world into our living rooms, showing firsthand events taking place across the globe with visceral intensity. This has had a transformational effect on global politics, as can be seen in the response to the tragic events unfolding in Syria. Without the images provided by television cameras, it is hard to visualize situations occurring elsewhere in the world. TV provides immediacy and creates an emotional connection that cannot easily be ignored.
But, more often than not, television does not tell the story of our lives. It is driven by a news agenda that dances around like a moth attracted to the brightest lights, moving from place to place in search of the sensational and out of the ordinary.
It is digital, social and mobile technologies that increasingly capture the minor dramas of life, like the passing away of an old man in Switzerland. Although they often capture history’s big events before the news cameras arrive, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Instagram are where life’s smaller narratives are played out. As in Tom Stoppard’s play, ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’, it is the minor characters that take centre stage, instead of would-be kings and queens like Hamlet, William or Kate.
There is of course a danger in all this. The risk is that people will follow the path of reality television and increasingly ‘act out’ for an external audience. Few of us would deny the tiny dopamine buzz we receive when one of our pictures is ‘liked’ on Facebook or a pithy tweet is retweeted. It provides validation and affirmation, and it can be addictive. As a result, we are becoming more like TV stars; desperate for attention, we flood digital channels with an endless stream of videos, photos, music and written words (much like these).
The short film ‘I forgot my phone’ beautifully illustrates this point. It demonstrates how the desire to capture and share the moment actually means that we miss living in it. There are few people that would argue with this sentiment, and the video’s popularity on YouTube suggests that many of us acknowledge we are guilty as charged. And yet there is more to it than that.
Sticks and stones
Yesterday afternoon, when I went to pick up my 5 year old son from a friends birthday party, I was greeted by an ashen-faced mother who explained that my boy had fallen from their garden wall and badly hurt his arm. When I rushed inside the house to see him, it was immediately clear that my son’s arm was broken. This was confirmed when I took him to the hospital and had him X-rayed.
When I was shown the X-ray of his broken radius and ulna bones I found myself reaching into my pocket and taking a photo of it. When my wife rushed over from work in an obviously distressed state, I was able to show her the X-ray image as a way of illustrating what the problem was. She then encouraged me to post the image onto Facebook. Not being able to get a signal inside the hospital, I went outside and posted the image on her account.
On one level, this typifies the problem with digital technologies. Instead of being in the moment with my son, I temporarily left his side to share the moment with others.
But on another level we were exhibiting very natural human behaviour. My wife was not interested in gaining ‘likes’, she wanted her friends and family to know what had happened so that they could be praying for our son. Facebook was simply the fastest medium to do this. Had this incident occurred 10 or 15 years ago, I would have spent half the evening on a mobile, or payphone calling up friends and family across the world to let them know the news. Instead, with one simple status update, the job was done. My wife was able to finally sleep knowing that her friends and family around the world were wishing our son well.
Beyond Big Brother
Just as television shows like Big Brother forced us to confront the ethics of broadcast, channels such as Skype, Facebook, Twitter, BBM and Snap-chat raise new and complicated moral and ethical issues. Our lives may be increasingly captured on digital channels, but the narrative is still for us to write.