Texting, Tweeting And The “Always On” Society: Teenagers Are Not Alone In Their Addiction To The Smallest Screen – Column 5.10.12
JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 5.10.12
IT’S TUESDAY night at the Royal Lyceum, and the performance of Michel Tremblay’s The Guid Sisters is going well; in fact, it’s a blast, one of the most gripping and enjoyable live theatre shows of the year. It’s not good enough, though, to hold the undivided attention of the man in his 30’s who’s sitting next to me in the stalls; for furtively, under the folds of his jacket, he is sending text messages, chatting away to someone down the road, or in another city.
Nor is he alone; more and more often, in the theatre, shows are disrupted by people who simply can’t switch their phones off, even for the brief hour between curtain-up and the interval. People enjoying all-star musicals persistently try to take photos or videos and send them during the shows, and are indignant when asked to stop; and last year, at a National Theatre of Scotland touring show about truancy, I heard a bunch of secondary schoolkids gasping in disbelief at a request that they switch their phones off during the 50-minute performance, as if the loss of their web-connected “limb”, even for that short time, represented a major breach of their human rights.
So it was with a certain weariness of spirit that I eyed this week’s gloomy headlines about a “breakdown in school discipline”, caused in part by pupils insisting on using mobile phones during lessons; not because mobile phones in class present no problem, but because the debate about the communications revolution, and how it is changing our society, cannot be contained within the familiar frame of a lament about today’s young people. For a brief year back in the 1970’s, I attempted to become a secondary school teacher in Edinburgh; I found the task – which essentially amounts, in theatrical terms, to giving a five or six-hour solo performance every day in front of a captive and often hostile audience, while at the same time imparting substantial amounts of knowledge, and righting many of the wrongs of society – so far beyond my ability that I have been lost in admiration for anyone who can sustain it, ever since.
And as I read yesterday’s reports about disruption in Scottish classrooms, it seemed obvious that although the technology in the pupils’ hands has changed, the balance between kids who want to learn, and kids who are determined to disrupt, remains almost exactly the same, with a well-behaved majority constantly thwarted in their work by four or five loud-mouthed hoodlums in each class. As I walked away from my last class in 1977, I thought that the only thing that would ever tempt me back into the role of classroom teacher would be an absolute right to dismiss disruptive students and send them elsewhere, so that the rest of us could get on with the job. Alas, that basic disciplinary infrastructure did not exist then, and apparently does not exist now; and in its absence, problems ensue, whether children are using mobile phones to challenge the teacher, or just a few rude drawings on the blackboard.
For the truth is that if there is a problem with the always-on mobile phone, it is not just a problem for schools, but for our entire society. As the theatre experience shows, middle-aged mobile users can be as disruptive as teenagers, in their demand to be allowed to use their phones always and everywhere; and as the range of functions of mobile computers expands, it becomes more and more difficult to switch them off, even in social conversations. Our photographs and memories are in our smartphones, all the detail of our lives; and as we discovered two generations ago when we first let television screens into our homes, there’s something about a bright screen, even when it’s tiny, that monopolises our gaze, and always seems more vivid than the real world around us. Add to that primal, shiny appeal the new, Pavlovian power of the on-line social networks – with their constant, tantalising drip-drip of information and images about a vast field of friends, family, acquaintances, and interests – and we have a whole new world of virtual interaction, in which it can be increasingly difficult to lift our eyes from the screen at all.
What can be said, though, is that the world of electronic connection is at its best when it reflects, sustains and helps to strengthen connections which have been made in the real world, and are rooted in material reality. In my own work as a theatre critic, I am constantly thrilled by the power of the interaction between the real live event – the sweat of the actors, the real theatre space, the gasp and surge of a live audience – and reflection on it afterwards, often through electronic media. And despite all the commercial and psychological pressures in the opposite direction, I think this is the gift that we should strive to give to our children, at home and at school. Not disapproval of new technologies, nor excessive fear of them, nor a tendency to blame new gismos for old problems; but an ever-deeper recognition of the strength we gather from striking the balance, from knowing when to switch off, slow down, commune with art or nature, and give other human beings our full attention for an hour or two, without distractions.
Yet if we to offer that experience to young people, we also have to be diligent about cultivating our own capacity to resist the temptations of the always-on world. For unless we are confident that we can practice what we preach – and that we, too, are developing a new wisdom about how to use new technologies, and to cope with their deep impact on our minds – then we will always struggle to persuade young people that there is any point in switching off; and in resisting the flickering screen that threatens to become a substitute for the feel of the wind on our faces, the joy of real conversation, the thrill of a brilliant live performance – or that timeless moment in a classroom when a great teacher, talking, communicating, pacing the floor, touches the mind of a young student, and changes his or her life, for good.