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30 April 2017


​A short while ago, a photo went viral on social media.  It showed a group of youngsters sitting on a bench in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Nightwatch and, seemingly unaware of the beautiful artworks surrounding them, being totally absorbed by their mobile phones.  Thousands of people commented on it:  laments such as “Typical of the young generation!”, “See what mobiles have done to our young!”, “Art is wasted on 21st century teenagers!” abounded.  This is the picture in question.


A little later the true facts of the matter emerged:  the pupils were not disengaged, disinterested teenagers after all.  They used an interactive art app and had been given the task to research the background of the artworks, which they enthusiastically did.  Another photo was soon added, showing the same group of youngsters sitting around a picture, looking at it with keen interest and listening to their teacher explaining its history.  Nonetheless the comments did not stop there.  Neither did the laments.  Some commentators still saw the first photo as indicative of a loss of culture and a loss of values and as a sure sign of the disinterest, disengagement and distraction of our young generation.

This story amused me on many fronts.  Firstly, the predictable criticism of the young, a commonplace since the time of the ancient Greeks.  As far as I can see, most generations throughout history have lamented the decline in values and respect since the time they were young themselves.  Secondly, the blame laid upon social media and their distracting, superficial nature by people who themselves had fallen prey to it.  Or why else were people so quick to jump to conclusions when seeing a picture that was not corroborated by a backstory and that had neither been authenticated nor put into context?  Thirdly, the impact the story had on me. 

Because, to be honest, my first reaction, even though I did not comment online, had been similar to that of the lamenters.  I, too, had immediately thought that this was a sadly accurate reflection on the distracting nature of technology and its impact on our ability to focus on beautiful things that are right in front of us.  And like the commentators who stubbornly stuck to their first reaction, even after the real backstory had been revealed, I still felt that the picture was not a bad illustration of modern times.  I think the story of this picture illustrates beautifully why modern technology is such a double-edged sword and why social media can be a curse as well as a blessing.  It illustrates accurately my own ambivalent attitude to this topic.

When a colleague and I ran a Philosophy Club together some time ago, we discussed with our students the modern ‘illness’ of “Nomophobia”, a jokingly coined (but increasingly seriously used) term for the fear of being left without a mobile (or with one that has lost its charge or signal).  I spoke to them about my own youth and how in my days we needed to think creatively if, for example, we had arranged to meet with a friend at an agreed meeting point and the friend did not turn up.  Nowadays you would simply text them, but in those days you either faced a frustratingly long wait or you gave up on them and ventured out without them.  I used as an example how I once planned a walk with a couple of friends, one of whom was delayed.  After waiting at the agreed bus stop for a short while, we got out a pen and piece of paper, wrote a little message, saying that we had gone ahead and which route we were going to walk, and then pinned it up at the tree closest to the bus stop.  Our friend joined us later, having found the note and caught up on us. 

My colleague burst out laughing when I said to the girls that surely they would always have pen and paper with them?  Of course she had good reason to laugh at my old-fashioned notion:  our pupils all shook their head in bewilderment at the thought.  Even though I do own a mobile phone, I still don’t leave the house without pen and paper, and if I have any ideas while on the road (on topics for new blogs, for example, or other writing projects), I still jot them down on paper rather than use the note function on my phone.  Old habits die hard.

The overreliance on mobile phones is not just there in the young generation though.  Whilst they have been brought up with them (one of my girls, when I told her that I grew up without one, stared at me in disbelief and exclaimed:  “OMG!  I would have died!”), even people in my generation have come to rely on them and to see them as indispensable to organise their lives.  In a dramatic hyperbole similar to that of my student, a senior educator I met recently said to me that she could not live without her iPhone any longer.  Yes, they are practical little instruments, but I think I could live quite contentedly without one myself, if I had to.

As an educator, I am always open to change and I do realise and accept that modern technologies are important and indispensable. Digital skills are highly valued in the job market and social media offer some fantastic opportunities to communicate and network worldwide.  I take advantage of this myself, both as educator and author, and I have used various platforms in my teaching, in my presentations and in my writing career.  On the other hand, when faced with the choice of “death by powerpoint” or simply listening to a skilful speaker who engages me without resorting to technology, I still place great value on and abide by the ancient Roman rhetorician Quintilian’s credo that the living voice feeds the mind of the listener more nutritiously:  “Viva vox alit plenius.”

Despite all the fantastic opportunities that mobile phones, modern technology, connectivity and social media provide to us these days, I do have some major concerns about their over-use, and whilst I may be outing myself, once again, as a fossil, I do want to share them.

The impact on common courtesy

Firstly:  Returning to the example of arranging meetings in pre-mobile phone times:  the expectation was that, unless a major emergency prohibited you from it, you were punctual.  Nowadays, the ease of texting someone and saying:  “Sorry, running late, will see you in 30 minutes!” has, for some people, removed the need to plan their arrangements according to the needs of others and considerately.  The ease of communicating a delay somehow seems to have made the inconvenience caused to someone else more acceptable. 

Secondly: most teachers would admonish a student who distractedly checked their phone for messages while talking to them.  The same teachers though often seem to find this habit perfectly acceptable in themselves when dining out with friends, family or colleagues.  Many adults also find it perfectly acceptable to make and receive private calls on their phones while having dinner at a friend’s house.  All these annoying habits that have crept in over the past few years have had a real impact on courteous and attentive behaviour and on the ability to listen to others with concentration and attention to detail and nuance.

The impact on concentration skills

Most educators and parents will be only too aware of this.  Young people (and increasingly adults, too) are so easily distracted by technology and media.  They obsessively check their phone for messages, they look at their Facebook feed or the tweets of those they follow, and many seem to have lost the ability to focus entirely on one task in hand.  That may be homework, but it also includes leisure activities such as reading a book or watching a TV programme – I have seen many people have one eye on the TV screen and one on their phones.  Some people delude themselves into thinking that this type of multi-tasking is a sign of mental agility, but I am deeply sceptical about this view.  The ancient philosopher Seneca, almost 2000 years before the invention of mobile phones, seems to share this scepticism in his essay on The Shortness of Life:  “Everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things (…) since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it.” (De Brevitate Vitae, Ch. 7)

The impact on life and survival skills

Growing up pre-mobile phones, there are certain skills that my generation and previous ones had to learn. 

  • We learned how to plan ahead when we went for a night out and pre-arrange transport home, either by asking a parent to pick us up at a certain time or by working out the time of the last bus home. 

  • We also learned how to read bus and train timetables.  Many young people nowadays don’t have that ability any longer, which is why some school camps make this a priority. 

  • We learned, as per my example above about the failed meeting arrangement, to be creative if something did not go quite according to plan.  Nowadays, people just send a text.  This overreliance can pose a real danger if a phone runs out of charge or range.  Many accidents have happened because people were over-confidently relying on their phone when they started a mountain walk under-prepared or under-equipped. 

  • We learned how to read a map and navigate.  Why should people bother these days, when their little mini-computers come with built-in satellite navigation? 

Once again:  I have used all these functionalities myself and I am very grateful for them.  There is a danger, however, in replacing life skills with a piece of equipment that we might lose or that might malfunction.

To conclude:  I have just read the statistics that the average 21-year-old nowadays will have spent 10,000 hours of their life looking at the screen of a mobile phone.  Whatever advantages a smart phone may have, and whatever exciting new functionalities and apps may be developed in the future, this is a worrying figure.  And I have not even mentioned the addictive nature of mobile phones and the impact they have on our posture and on our eyesight.  These are serious health concerns that are increasingly flagged by doctors and psychologists.  Let us make sure not to start our young people too early on the path of technology.

I will finish these considerations with another quote from Seneca’s essay on The Shortness of Life where he deals with the common complaint that life is too short:  “Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. (…)  So it is – the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.” (De Brevitate Vitae, Ch. 1)

The impact on language accuracy and nuanced expression

I have recently read a school essay where the candidate chose the topic of the language of WhatsApp as their research project.  The predictable outcome of his research was that WhatsApp users often disregard conventional grammar rules, such as putting commas in the right place or ending a sentence with a full stop, which is instead often replaced with an emoji.  He argues in his conclusion that language evolves, that it has always evolved, and that there is no reason to be concerned about this:  social media simply follow different rules. 

I thought about this long and hard.  As a linguist, I do believe in the importance of accuracy and nuance of language, and whilst I accept that grammar and spelling rules may be a little more fluid in ‘textspeak’ than in a more formal setting, I still have some concerns about the impact of the language of the former on the latter.  Many employers deplore the lack of correct grammar and orthography in young jobseekers these days, and I cannot help but think that social media have contributed to this.  Some abbreviations and shortcuts may seem necessary, especially in a medium such as Twitter with its character limit, but ultimately I find the overuse of acronyms such as OMG, LOL and others rather lazy, and the overuse of emojis downright infantile. 

These tendencies do not only have a negative impact on linguistic accuracy, but also on nuanced expression and emotional literacy.  I don’t mind the odd smiley face or thumbs up:  sometimes a quick way to indicate humour or approval.  What I find harder to accept are emojis that have been designed to indicate compassion or condolence.  Personally, I would not put the sad news of the death of a loved one on Facebook – it is far too private for this medium, in my view.  I do accept that many Facebook users have a different philosophy on this and that they do use this medium to communicate such news.  I find it incomprehensible though, that so many people then respond with a quick “teary face” (one of Facebook’s newer icons) rather than a private, personalised, compassionate, heartfelt condolence message.  If we are too quick to resort to pre-fabricated emojis (the “wow!” face, the crying face, the smiling face, the angry face) on topics that should require a little more effort, thought and consideration, it will impoverish not only our language, but also one of the essential qualities of being human:  using language to express sophisticated feelings in a nuanced and emotionally mature way.

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