IT’S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS
By Andrew Biggs
Those three letters coursed relentlessly across my smartphone screen last weekend.
The message came from students, friends, acquaintances. Every time it beeped at me I admit I felt all warm and fuzzy, which was nice since I was on an alcohol-free weekend and I needed something to get me through, though after a few dozen times they also brought tinges of regret.
Regret that I was one year older? Nah … regret at how the internet has turned us into instant, finger-jabbing, anti-social creatures more intent on gazing at a screen than socially interacting … or networking for that matter.
What a creature the internet is. Like the antagonist from Texas Chainsaw Massacre it has taken to huge chunks of human experience with a chainsaw and hacked them to pieces. Gone are so many things we once took for granted such as record stores, book shops, travel agents and suburban cinemas. How efficient everything is now. How vanilla.
Add birthdays to that list of long-gone experiences, or perhaps I write BDs to keep up with the times since in these modern times “birthdays” is a word with way too many extraneous letters to write out in full.
It was a subdued BD, without the raucousness of last year nor the embarrassment of two years ago that resulted in a nasty rash. In fact this year my BD was spent running; I ran a 10 km mini-marathon that left me feeling my calf muscles along with my age.
As one progresses in life, one begins to stop counting and announcing BDs as fervently as one did when one was, say, ten and a half or, as my student told me a month ago, “In three months and two weeks I’ll be 13.” If that were me I’d be grasping onto 12 as long as I could.
While the outpouring of well-wishes were truly touching, this year’s BD brought home how different modern life is when compared to just 15 years ago, not to mention how the internet has pushed us far away from the thrill of social networking. Who has the time to social network any more when one’s attention is plunged into a little three-by-two inch screen for most of the day?
One only has to tap the screen three times … H … B … D … and one has sent a birthday wish.
That’s great for those you would like to keep in good stead with for purposes of business or inheritance, but with whom social interaction is just a teensy bit too abhorrent. But do we now extend the net to everybody?
Imagine telling our grandparents when they were kids that in the near future, people would tap a screen exactly three times and a birthday message would be delivered. They would peer over their pince-nez and ask quizzically: “What about the stamp? How does the postman deliver it? And where is the card?”
Back in the 1970s when your columnist was around the age of that student who couldn’t wait to hit 13, there were old folk who often told stories of what we kids called “the olden days”. We’d even ask them about it: “Uncle Ted, what was it like in the olden days, before all these modern things like color TV and pet rocks and Donna Summer?”
Uncle Ted would stroke his beard and regale us of stories about positively hoary times, back when ageing Uncle Ted was still a kid. The freaky thing is that Uncle Ted was probably only 35 at the time.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’ve turned into Uncle Ted, that’s why.
It wasn’t that long ago when birthdays meant having to embark on a series of interactions as varied as they were tedious, but at least we got out there in society and socially networked, not to mention moving our bodies around.
There was the trip to the shop to pick out the card, where one had to socialize with the newsagent, and often you’d run into a neighbor and have a chat. Then you had to go home and write something on that card. A simple “Happy Birthday Therese” wasn’t enough; you had to then jot down a few lines telling Therese what you’d been up to, sign it with a few kisses, and seal it in an envelope.
After addressing that envelope, you took it down to the post office, stood in line, bought a stamp which required some socialization with a grumpy postal worker before placing it in the letter box. The card, I meant, not the postal worker.
Three to seven days later, depending on where Therese lived, she got the card. She would string up the cards at her workplace or at home, depending on where she would get a better reaction. The more cards she had attested to her self worth, naturally.
Such was the process that was in place anytime from the year 1850 to the year 2000.
By the turn of the millennium things started to change. Cards turned into e-cards, remember? That was popular until clever Russian scammers worked out ways to render your computer inoperable via viruses embedded in the attachments. Aren’t we humans wonderful; we can even find ways to sabotage birthday cards.
E-cards gave way to SMS and Facebook messages. Within that medium the messages shrunk. It is no longer necessary to write HAPPY BIRTHDAY because that would require 14 taps of the screen when you include the space. It is better to tap the screen three times and hit send, because it’s a more efficient use of your time. In that way you free yourself up for more important activities, such as endlessly scrolling down your Facebook timeline, sullenly comparing your bleak existence to the wacky antics of your Facebook friends.
You don’t even have to waste valuable energy tapping three times. We are now in the era of stickers.
Stickers used to be adhesive things you’d shove on the back of your car which said things such as HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS or IF IT’S ROCKIN’ DON’T BOTHER KNOCKIN’. They were big back in the days when Uncle Ted was still 35; but stickers in 2015 don’t even technically exist. They now belong to an application known as Line.
There are stickers for everything including HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Why send Line stickers? Oh dear reader, get a grip; it’s a single tap and it’s free!
Birthday cards still exist; they are useful when faced with the difficult experience of having to come face to face with a birthday celebrant. But we no longer string them up and measure our self worth through the number of cards we receive. Today we just count the Likes on our Facebook page.
Thus the intention behind a birthday card from 1995 and a Line sticker from 2015 is exactly the same; the internet has just made it easier to connect. For this we have the internet to thank, not just for enabling us to send messages quicker, but also for diluting the human experience.
As my BD proved, we are now in the era of social networking without ever having to socially interact.