By Clare Foges in THE TIMES, 30 December 2019
The Roaring Twenties, the Warring Forties, the Swinging Sixties; what is the essence of the decade that ends tomorrow? When we think of decades gone — whether we lived in them or not — they have distinctive moods, colours: the sepia-tinted Seventies, the brash Eighties.
This retrospective coherence is a little ridiculous, of course; trends aren’t guillotined at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, and stereotypes ignore how the masses live (most didn’t spend 1969 prancing down Carnaby Street in a Mary Quant miniskirt). Yet defining our eras in this way helps us. It allows us to reminisce, take stock, resolve on new directions.
For some, the 2010s will always be coloured red, white and blue (or just blue) by Brexit. For me, though profoundly regrettable, this was not a decade definer. A deeper thread runs through the past ten years. The 2010s has been the decade of increasing disconnection; a time when we have grown farther apart from each other, from nature, from shared experiences. A time when convenience, technology and austerity have conspired to inch us away from some of the most satisfying parts of being human.
If we were packing a time capsule to capture the Great Disconnection it would contain only one item: a smartphone. At the beginning of the decade a third of us owned one. By 2017, ownership had reached 85 per cent — 95 per cent among those aged 18 to 24. If anyone were to visit us from previous eras, they would assume these ubiquitous rectangles were portals to our gods. In a way, they are: to icons, influencers, Instagram beauties. The dazzling goodies online can make real life seem pedestrian, achingly slow. And so the siren screen calls in bed, in the meeting, the lavatory, the cinema, the restaurant. In 2010 taking your phone out during a meal was the height of rudeness; now they sit next to the cutlery as standard. This year “texting lanes” were painted on to a road in Manchester, for those too absorbed to look up.
From the Arab Spring to the #MeToo movement, technology was hailed as a great force for connecting humanity — but although the ease of social media promised to bring us together, the numbers reporting loneliness rose. The trouble is that we are creatures made for face-to-face contact, not screen-to-screen contact. We are stuck with the same neurological kit as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, brains primed to socialise with our own small tribe, not thousands of strangers on Twitter.
When interacting the old-fashioned way we get hits of oxytocin, dopamine and the natural opiate beta-endorphins. The returns from online interaction don’t compare. As Anna Machin, the evolutionary anthropologist, explains, “If you get loads of Instagram likes, you get a nice dopamine hit, but with things like beta-endorphin and oxytocin you don’t get anything at all.”
Social media doesn’t nourish us like socialising. But face-to-face interactions were hammered by the conveniences served up to us in the 2010s. Instead of talking to the cashier, we now beep our goods through at the self-checkout machine. Instead of popping out for a bite, we call up Just Eat or Deliveroo. Instead of going to the pub, we drink at home. Instead of meeting dates in bars, people chat endlessly on dating apps before ghosting each other. Instead of hitting the high street, we open up our Amazon Prime account — 90 per cent of us use the site. Coffee shops may be thriving but half the clientele are plugged in to their laptops or podcasts.
At the same time as these cultural and technological trends were prompting a physical retreat from other human beings, the civic spaces we once shared shrank dramatically. Libraries, community centres, Sure Starts, youth clubs, leisure centres and playing fields closed by the week. Whether you blame austerity or inept financial management by local authorities, the result is a sad whittling away of places where people can meet and be together.
A century before the Great Disconnection, EM Forster wrote a rather prescient short story called The Machine Stops. In this futuristic fantasy the world is run by an omnipotent machine and everyone lives in a subterranean cell of their own, rarely meeting others face to face. Instead, each cell contains a blue “optic plate” through which they can communicate, over a global web. In one scene a son tells his mother, “I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you.” Though we are clearly not approaching a dystopia like this, in the son’s yearning for authentic connection there is a warning to us about what we are missing.
Now, at the beginning of a fresh new decade, many of us might resolve to reconnect with the real world; to give more of our undiluted attention to those around us; to invest in the places and experiences we share. Our new government can resolve to do its bit to regenerate our common spaces: using the tax and planning systems where possible to bolster pubs, independent shops, post offices and cafés. The Tory manifesto promises a “new deal for towns”; make this a serious agenda to revitalise hollowed-out town centres. After the long years of acrimony over cuts, there should be a fresh financial settlement for local authorities, the money earmarked for supporting the places communities are made: playgrounds, libraries, community centres.
Ultimately, though, a resolution to reconnect face-to-face must be made by ourselves. Already there are signs that people are turning against the screens that have held us captive for years. While a decade ago the latest iPhone was a luxury, now luxury is freedom from the blessed things; posh hotels offer “digital detox” weekends, some private schools boast of screen-free learning, increasing numbers of eateries insist on no phones. It has become more common to receive out-of-office emails that make clear the account will not be checked as the recipient is spending time with their family, a declaration that would have earned scorn just a few years ago.
The country would be a better, happier place if more of us followed this lead and looked up from our screens. As Forster instructs in Howards End: “Only connect!” These two words form a fitting resolution for Britain in 2020. After years of acrimony, battling and bickering, now is the time to come out from behind our technology, look each other in the face and truly connect.