THE morning walk that I share with George, my amiable greyhound, often coincides with the convergence on to the village green, from various paths, of children on their way to the village college. It was strange, during the first lockdown, to take that walk, just before what should have been the start of the school day, and find it all eerily deserted. So, I have welcomed the return of the children, some happily kicking a football as they go, some clustered in groups and gaggles exchanging news or gossip, some, in classic Shakespearian style as:
. . . the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
But, most of them, as they make their way to school, willingly or no, are doing something that Shakespeare could never have guessed: they are staring into their mobile phones, sometimes so absorbed in tapping and swiping that they almost trip over George.
Not being a digital native, as these children are, I could easily scoff or criticise, and go on like a grumpy old man about “Why can’t these young people look up and enjoy the world around them instead of being lost in some hopeless little screen?”. But I hesitate to do so, partly because I could be seen, not only on my schooldays but at university, too, walking along the street with my nose so deeply buried in a book that I bumped into everyone and and anyone. Indeed, the gent harrumphing behind a newspaper on the Tube is just as isolated and antisocial as the teenager absorbed in scrolling.
But what really gave me pause was to contemplate how much those phones must have meant, what a godsend they must have been, when those kids were really isolated, cooped up at home and separated from all their friends, and their phones were the only window on the world — the vital link that “made one little screen an everywhere”.
As that last phrase came to mind, I remembered that it was an updated echo of a line of Donne’s that I’d used in a wry little poem that I wrote when I first got a smartphone, and contemplated its potential for good and for ill. Remembering that poem made me realise that, when it comes to phone use, it is myself I should be questioning, not just the children. The poem went like this:
My private portal to a world between,
My placeless place of virtual exchange,
I see through you though you remain unseen
And make familiar what you once made strange.
You make a stranger means to make me “friend”
Whom I can “touch” to “like”, to show I care.
You make a means to every unknown end
And make one little screen an everywhere.
I am familiar with a hundred faces,
All famished for their fifteen minutes fame,
I am half present in a hundred places
But never present in the place I am.
I pull you from my pocket when you call
I touch and swipe as I am bid to do,
You do my bidding too, you do it all,
What will you make of me, or I of you?