25 October 2008

The Good Old Days

By Nicola Pratt

The majority of this year's intake of university first-year undergraduates was born in the same year that I started my own university degree. It certainly makes me feel old(er). When I was at university, there were no mobile phones, no internet and no email. I kept in touch with friends and relatives in other cities and countries by snail mail, whilst my day-to-day social life was carefully organized in advance using the pay phone on my corridor or by leaving hand-written messages in people’s university pigeon holes. Once, after graduation, I went to live in Egypt, it was at least a year before I got an email account and, during that time, I continued to write and receive letters by post. My mum still only handwrites letters. Having lived the majority of her life happily without computers or mobile phones, she is not in the slightest bit interested in them now.

Most of my students cannot begin to imagine a life without all the gadgets and applications that make it so easy to keep in touch with friends and relatives—wherever they may be. Perhaps, if email, texting and Facebook had been around when I was at university, I would not have fallen out of touch with some of the people who I remember fondly but who weren't so good at putting pen to paper. I'm happy that some of the people with whom I lost touch have found me again on Facebook. However, increasingly I have begun to admire my mum's steadfast position against new technology and I, like many other workers, often even resent the constant communication barrage.

What should be a positive development in life—that is, the ability to keep in touch more easily - has turned into one of life's necessary evils. New technology creates new expectations on the part of work colleagues and managers that often become new pressures. Supposedly, new technology enables us to do everything faster and, therefore, to do more of it. It also, supposedly, allows us to do it more flexibly. However, research demonstrates that new technology can contribute to work intensification, longer working hours and the erosion of a home life separate from work life. British workers, on average, work more than 40 hours per week and have the longest working hours in Europe. This is despite the fact that it is well over a century since the British labour movement campaigned to limit the working week to forty hours. It appears that new communication technology is creating more work rather than facilitating the work that we were already doing. This is good news for company bosses but not for those workers who spend their days checking and sending emails from work computers and/or Blackberrys. After our intense work days, sometimes made even longer by commuting, we may resort to using technology such as texting or 'Facebooking' friends and families because we simply don't have the energy for a full-blown conversation.

Perhaps we are willing to put up with the extra hours because of the financial and material benefits or even for the love of it? The first few decades following World War II witnessed a radical improvement of living conditions for the majority of the population. However, now we see that the gap between rich and poor is widening, social mobility is declining, job security is declining and British children are among the unhappiest and unhealthiest in the world.

The looming world recession brings into question all that we've worked for and all that we've sacrificed in terms of quality of life and relationships. I look at my mum's life and it is not obvious that my generation is better off. Certainly, in comparison to my mum, I have benefitted from increased access to education and increased opportunities for women in the workplace. However, the ideology of 'technology-driven efficiency' and the associated 'flexibility' and 'intensification' of work is not the cause. Rather, I can thank the labour and women's movements for campaigning throughout the twentieth century for the rights of ordinary men and women. The increasing marginalisation of those movements today (for a variety of reasons that we could debate) is helping to turn us into slaves of new technology, rather than empowering us to use it to enhance the quality of our lives. My mum's hostility to email and mobile phones cannot merely be labelled as an older person's inability to adapt to change. Rather, in a context where ideological alternatives to "technologically-driven hyper-efficiency" are difficult to come by in the mainstream media, her resistance to technology is maybe her individual resistance to the current state of British society.

No comments: