On gadgets and half a lifetime online

I feel a bit gauche and crass talking about happy occasions in public when my work, such as it is, regularly puts me into contact with people from backgrounds which make me realise how fortunate having a well-meaning and relatively well-off family is, but I’m going to risk it here and say I’ve had a lovely Christmas with (as always) delicious food, beautiful decorations, cute cats, and a particularly nice additional surprise…I was converted to Apple products a couple of years ago after many years’ skepticism, when an unexpected windfall meant I could afford a MacBook. Due to another unexpected windfall recently – well, dad’s, courtesy of HMRC – I got an iPad Air for Christmas instead of the Kindle I’d asked for, with e-reading in mind.

As I now have a set of gadgets which enables me to spend pretty much my entire waking life online, it seems a good moment to reflect on my relationship with the internet. I’m 29 and have been online since 1998, i.e half my life. For 15 years I’ve been reading scare stories about how technology is a bad thing that’s ruining people, and I have maintained that on balance it brings me far more good things than bad. The internet has given me wonderful friendships, strengthened many face-to-face friendships, got me laid, found me work and quite frankly saved my life in difficult times. I’m amazed there are still some people who think meeting someone through the internet is taboo, weird or invalid, when many people do it every day as part of their job: in most of my work, the first contact I make with someone will be via email or social media. 

I’ve found that many of the internet’s potential problems can be solved by a simple principle I adopted as a teenager, soon after I started using it: Don’t spend a lot of time talking to people who you don’t know and don’t ever intend to meet. All of my internet friends are either people I’ve met in real life, intend to meet in real life, or connected to people I’ve met in real life. The main sore points I’ve experienced is that the internet, 1) requires a bit of soul-searching around the notion of privacy (yours and others’), 2) can easily mask someone’s inability to be on time/dress appropriately for occasions/tidy the house, and 3) makes it easy to think a friendship is much more of one than it really is, especially when you’re young and vulnerable. The latter two of those sore points are still very sore but I’m now older, a bit wiser, and working on turning them into positives as best I can – again, thanks to the internet.

Back in the day (i.e a long time before I got fired from a job which 90 per cent involved database administration for being too crud at it) I used to design websites, of a fashion, and briefly wanted to be the next Martha Lane Fox. Or something (didn’t everyone?). These days the main thing I do online other than earn money or try to is use Twitter or upload photos. I tweet a lot. Not as much as most news journalists, or Caitlin Moran, but enough to get the occasional ticking off about how much time I spend on it. To those people, I say that as long as I’m not endangering anyone’s privacy or safety (I don’t drive, let alone drive and text…), or doing it at an insensitive time (like while you’re pouring your heart out to me or serving me in a shop) then, really, it’s none of your biz. I know there’s some emotional baggage attached, in that my usage increased significantly after a bereavement stopped me working/going out as much, but so long as it doesn’t stop me adhering to the main principle above, I don’t think it’s a problem.

Here’s to the next fifteen years, and who-knows-what as yet-unimaginable gadgets…

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