I wish I was lonely: How does technology affect relationships?
Do you ever get lonely? I mean properly lonely? Or do you fill even the tiniest space in your crammed life with a tweet, text or a selfie? And do you ever worry about the long term impact of this on you or your children? I do, when I’m not busy Tweeting or on Instagram. Which is why I ended up in the audience of a play that asked how does technology affect relationships? A performance that challenged my addiction to technology. A gig where it was compulsory to leave my phone switched on…
I can vividly remember the last time I really missed Stuart. I was sitting at Dublin airport with hours until my flight left. My phone had been stolen earlier along with my wallet. The theft had made me feel vulnerable and lonely. I was a long way from home and I couldn’t text, Tweet, Instagram or Facebook anyone to remind me I was loved and worth something. Those hours were dark. Because I couldn’t instantly connect, I was in danger of believing my world had ended.
I’m remembering this because I’m asked by an actor in a touring show at Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre how I’d feel if he took my phone away and smashed it up.
Of course, what I feel is terror. But as this is a show about communication, and discommunication, actor Chris Thorpe goes further. He asks us all to put our phones in a chalk circle in the middle of the room. (A modern Mother Courage?) And then, during the drama, he stamps on one of the phones, hard enough to obliterate it. I have to restrain myself from diving under his feet in case he accidentally damages mine or Stuart’s. He later tells me that when they performed the show in front of a youth theatre in London, a girl leapt into the ring “like she was saving a baby from a river.” Incidentally the destroyed phone doesn’t belong to an audience member, but the other actor; Hannah Jane Walker. I’m guessing she gets through a lot of phones; the show began at the Edinburgh Fringe last August.
For many of us, our phones have become an extension of our personality. They are our full time appendages, pretty much welded to our body. Held as close, or maybe even closer than our babies? Without them we are the Lost Boys, fallen out of our prams and civilization, wandering around Neverland without our contacts. Are we beyond help? We might be in this house. Stuart reaches for his phone the moment he wakes, while I am still on our Instagram account late into the night hours. And if the two of us are past rescuing, what hope is there for our kids? Matthew inhabits a world that he’s made out of digital bricks and blocks. Cameron speaks a vocabulary I don’t understand. And Hannah is the queen of apps. It’s something we’ve noticed before and I think it’s getting more acute.
My vague concerns about our overuse of technology have been niggling at me for a while, so when I see an advert for a show based around communication, I go. Even when I see there’s audience participation. And I take some of the family. Those who can be dragged away from Minecraft.
‘I Wish I Was Lonely‘ is a mash up of poetry, prose, stand up, live texting and phone calls. It challenges our reliance on technology and the impact our smart phones have on our relationships with each other. It’s a play where the audience aren’t just invited to leave our phones on, we are instructed to answer them if they ring. Now anyone who has ever left their phone on in a theatre will know how awful it is when it does ring. This doesn’t change just because you are given permission to answer it. The show is interrupted several times, one guy spends an excruciating ten minutes solving his Grandad’s computer problems and a young girl quietly informs her colleague he is now part of a drama with an audience of fifty. But that’s not the only time I feel uncomfortable being in this audience. The dialogue, the prose, and the audience participation, are powerful stuff. But what’s most shocking is that the show seems to be written about me. Can I have a conversation without checking for e mails? Can I answer a question without googling it? Or make an arrangement to meet without opening an electronic diary or map app? No. No. And No.
“Of course I want to be by you and with you and near you every single minute of every single minute every single day. Of course I want to gather all my family and friends and acquaintances into one place and scream ‘Do you like my hair?!’” Quote from I wish I was lonely.
Over an hour or two the actors raise the question of whether we have forgotten what it feels like to miss each other. Whether we have forgotten how to be lonely and how to be on our own. But it isn’t a lecture. Chris and Hannah soon establish that they are as lost as we are. “We put the audience in a challenging situation. But we aren’t finger pointing. These are difficult questions we all have to face and we don’t know the answer,” says Hannah when I chat to the two of them after the show. (A real life meeting but obviously pre-arranged on Twitter.)
We can’t even ask our parents what to do as we are the first generation to have to face up to these tricky issues. “We go through thousands of years of social evolution and then suddenly something comes along and within 20 years it rockets into the human world,” says Chris. “The things you can do expand exponentially. Whereas phones used to help us to speak to each other at a distance, now they can connect us to pretty much all the information that there’s ever been. It bangs against our evolved way of doing things and we don’t know what to do.”
He suspects we will eventually absorb our tech into our lives and find a way of coping with it. But right now, for many of us, the balance is wrong. “We used to spend time on our own. And when you were on your own you’d get through the boredom and the isolation, and then you’d find out something about yourself. But what we have now is a magic switch. Before we get to the point where we start to learn and change we can switch off. And it’s starting to affect who we are.”
In the show, the actors talk of ‘the slow dead rise of silence as we look at our laps and avoid eye contact.’ And I know what they mean. Those mealtimes when no one is talking. The family film evenings where everyone is watching a screen, but not the screen that’s showing the movie. The film evenings where I go away afterwards and Google the online reviews so I can form an opinion about what I thought of the movie I didn’t have time to see. So I can discuss it with Stuart who has already forgotten it because he’s moved on to updating Facebook.
“It’s an active form of inaction. We crowd source our values now. We have stripped, mined ourselves, we don’t feel like we need to be on our own.” Quote from I wish I was Lonely.
“After one of our shows I heard a young girl ask her mother what she used to do when she was waiting for a bus,” laughs Hannah. “We have forgotten how to do nothing.” But it’s worse than that isn’t it? It isn’t just confined to the bus stop. At every stage of getting the bus we use technology. How many of us would know how to check the bus timetable without our phones? Or find the bus stop without Googlemaps?
Hannah and Chris ram home a few home truths. But if anything this performance could go further. They could ask me to explore my feelings about Chris smashing Hannah’s phone. And why I was so panicked by the thought of losing mine. We could have discussed how I felt when I got an e-mail telling me my Dad was dead, or why Hannah felt she had to report a miscarriage to her partner by text.
But it’s not all techno doom and gloom. There are many fun moments. Like when we have to send a text to someone in the room. And answer a text from someone else. Like when we are asked to make eye contact with a person we don’t know for two minutes, (to prove we still can?) and then arrange to meet them another time without taking their number. (Old habits die hard…I engage with a delightful woman called Kat. We agree to skip the date but follow each other on Twitter!)
“And if it’s awkward, well it won’t be forever. And if there is silence…” Quote from I Wish I was Lonely
I leave determined to look at my use of technology and how appropriate it is. Hannah confesses that devising the performance has changed her own relationship with tech. “By talking to people about how they use their phones I feel more validated at putting down my phone. I don’t carry it around the house. It has made me go ‘Yes I have a choice in that.’” The change hasn’t been universal though; “Since we started the tour Chris has upgraded from a brick to the latest iPhone.”
As we leave, one couple confess they are on a first date. The woman next to me has the guy’s number and immediately texts him to say that if his new date dumps him he should give her a call. Meanwhile Chris has already received three tweets from audience members about the show. And I have checked my emails.
We might be asking questions but it’s clear we all still have a long way to go. More food for thought for our Getting Kids Outdoors Season.
Do you skype your kids to tell them tea is ready? Do you still know what to do at a bus stop when your phone is out of juice? Do you remember what it feels like to feel lonely? What kinds of things do you to maintain human contact and relationships amidst the sea of screens? Do leave a comment and share your experience.