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Communicating nothing in particular

“Young people are constantly sending messages to each other, which are just a waste of time. It’s not surprising that they lack basic information.” That was the gist of comments made by some members of a current affairs discussion group that I am running for University of the Third Age (Cambridge).
We were discussing the use of computers, and the Internet. Given that U3A is aimed at older people – in fact, at those retired from full-time employment – it is not wholly surprising that such comments would be made. They were made by people who frankly take the view that they are “too old to learn new tricks”, and do not therefore use computers. Equally unsurprising, in my opinion, was the fact that nearly all the members of the group do in fact use computers. The reason has nothing to do with age. It simply reflects the obvious fact that much of the information one needs is more easily acquired by using a computer than by more “traditional” means.
If today’s youngsters are busy texting “trivial” messages, the letters people wrote in the past were not exactly repositories of social commentary either
Our group discussion was lively, and even the non-users readily agreed that, in this computer age, they are in practice putting themselves at a disadvantage by holding out against using one. It quickly became clear that the main concern of the non-users was that so many people, especially younger people, use modern communication methods, such as the Internet, and, even more, Twitter and Facebook, to exchange information of a trivial kind. The attitude was: We don’t want to waste our time on that sort of thing.
That is an understandable position, but of course it misses the point. No one is obliged to produce or exchange information in which they have no interest. If you find something trivial, or if your children or grandchildren are interested in things which you think are too trivial to bother about, the answer is simple: don’t exchange the information. That, however, does not mean that you have to cut off your nose to spite your face. It surely makes eminent sense to use any modern means of communication that is helpful or advantageous to you. It becomes more sensible every week, simply because the speed of development of technological methods of communication is extremely high.
There are some problem cases, when some, old, people have not become computer users and would now find it difficult, because of sight loss, for example. That means there is a case for ensuring that old-fashioned methods of communication are still available when it is crucially important for everyone to have access to information. It does not mean that modern communication methods should be put on hold. (I am reminded of someone who grumbled when the United Kingdom moved to decimal currency that we should have waited until all the old people had died!)
I had occasion recently to look at all this from a very different starting point. I went to a boarding school in 1943, and I started writing a weekly letter to my mother. She in turn wrote a weekly letter to me. We continued for many years after I had left school – indeed, until her death in 1989.
She kept all the letters I wrote to her, and I kept all hers to me. When she died, I “inherited” hers. A few months ago I decided that I should sort them out chronologically, and possibly produce some sort of summary of the half-century of correspondence, which might provide a personal social commentary on the period – and might possibly be of interest to my children and grandchildren.
The sorting process is proving to be slow, largely because I find I always have something more pressing to do. Having re-read a number of the letters I quickly realised that most of the contents was not shrewd commentary on world affairs, or even local affairs, but a great deal of trivial comment about nothing in particular. The letters are, in short, an epistolary example of exactly the sort of thing that people now criticise in Twitter and Facebook.
I am not really surprised. Most of us do not devote our communication skills all the time to producing high-level commentary. Whatever our means of communication, what we actually do most of the time is engage in recording the trivia of daily life. In an odd sort of way that ought to reassure people about the widespread use of modern communication methods to communicate nothing in particular.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK

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