Could you sur­vive with­out mod­ern tech­nol­ogy? Bri­ton Robert Cramp­ton and his fam­ily try to un­plug for a week. Wel­come to 1980...

Friday - - Contents -

What’s it like to live with­out mod­ern gad­gets?

Ididn’t think it would be easy. But I didn’t think it would be so dif­fi­cult ei­ther. Cer­tainly, I didn’t imag­ine it would prove nigh on im­pos­si­ble. I was con­fi­dent that, as a fam­ily, we pos­sessed suf­fi­cient re­sources to en­able us to aban­don mod­ern tech­nol­ogy and live as my wife and I lived back in 1980, when we were both the age our el­dest child is now. We only had to do it for a week. Seven days, I rea­soned, should not be too hard. Right.

Sure, 1980 was a long time ago. But it wasn’t me­dieval. We might not have had many en­ter­tain­ment or com­mu­ni­ca­tions op­tions; we did have some. We had the telly – al­beit broad­cast­ing only three chan­nels. We had tele­phones and – yay – some of us could boast an an­swer­ing ma­chine or even an ex­ten­sion in our mum and dad’s bed­room. Mi­crowaves were com­ing in, as were video recorders. The first com­puter games were on the mar­ket. A wide se­lec­tion of fas­ci­nat­ing board games was avail­able. We had our trea­sured LP and cas­sette col­lec­tions. And (hap­pily for my wife, less so for me) The Archers had been go­ing strong for years. So, 1980 or 2013, whichever, that was her sorted.

The four of us – Ni­cola and I (both 49), 16-year-old Sam and 14-year-old Rachel – had not, I as­sumed, be­come so de­pen­dent on our var­i­ous de­vices as to be in­ca­pable of do­ing with­out them. The mo­biles and lap­tops, the iPads and PS3s, the box sets plus Sky Any­time and DVD rentals, the cord­less this and wire­less the other, the Google and Net­flix and Face­book, and not for­get­ting good old email and all the other ser­vices and gad­gets and gizmos of which I am but dimly aware yet which Sam and Rachel take for granted... Surely we could for­sake them all with­out too much trou­ble? It’s not as if we’d be­come ad­dicted. Ni­cola and I are ed­u­cated peo­ple. We would all sit around the fire and, um, read poetry. Or em­broi­der stuff. Or some­thing. It’d be fine.

It wasn’t fine. It was a farce. Yet, I would ar­gue, an in­struc­tive farce. Ba­si­cally, when­ever any hur­dle looked a lit­tle high, any ob­sta­cle a lit­tle dif­fi­cult, any sac­ri­fice a lit­tle painful, we bot­tled it. Like a horse do­ing showjump­ing that, at each suc­ces­sive fence, goes, “Nah. Thanks all the same. I’d rather not bother.”

My fam­ily’s in­abil­ity to ab­stain from new tech­nol­ogy was a shock. Ni­cola and I al­ways imag­ined we had ex­er­cised re­straint. We may not have adopted the zero-tol­er­ance stance some ad­vo­cate; nei­ther had we gone all-in. We had fol­lowed the stan­dard mid­dle-of-the-road, mid­dle-class path, equip­ping our chil­dren (and our­selves) with the req­ui­site elec­tronic tools, while not al­low­ing them to take over.

We were wary of be­com­ing slaves to tech­nol­ogy. We made an ef­fort to pre­serve fam­ily life. No phones at the din­ner ta­ble. Re­stric­tions on tele­vi­sion, gam­ing, tex­ting, and face­book­ing. A de­gree of re­spect (sort of) for the age cer­tifi­cates on films and games. Fresh air, ex­er­cise, read­ing, chores, all-round gen­eral whole­some­ness – you know the drill – ac­tively pro­moted. And, of course, a firm stance on no TVs in bed­rooms. We were grat­i­fied, per­haps even a bit smug, that Sam and Rachel ac­cepted this last edict with sur­pris­ingly lit­tle fuss. Then Ni­cola twigged that th­ese days, lap­tops – and phones, and for all I know, other con­trap­tions, too – do what TVs can do. The blighters could watch telly af­ter lights out! We duly con­fis­cated their com­put­ers at bed­time. That lasted a few days, af­ter which we re­laxed our vigil, the com­put­ers drifted back into the bed­rooms; you know how th­ese things go.

Try­ing to catch a so­cial but­ter­fly

So giv­ing up tech and gad­gets wasn’t go­ing to be easy, was it? But we de­cided to give it a go any­way. Rachel, I knew, would be the weak link.

She’s the youngest, she’s more so­cia­ble than her brother and as a girl – I think this is a le­git­i­mate gen­er­al­i­sa­tion – she is more re­liant on the so­cial net­works that new me­dia pro­vides. To gos­sip, to make ar­range­ments, to share in­for­ma­tion – to en­gage, in short, in ba­sic hu­man in­ter­ac­tion – th­ese plat­forms

My fam­ily’s in­abil­ity to ab­stain from new tech­nol­ogy was a shock. Ni­cola and I al­ways imag­ined we had ex­er­cised re­straint.

are for Rachel what mak­ing a tele­phone call was for my gen­er­a­tion. Not up for dis­cus­sion. Not some­thing re­quir­ing con­sid­er­a­tion. Not for an in­stant. Just there. Al­ways and for­ever. Like Bobby Charl­ton. Or rather, David Beck­ham.

“There is ab­so­lutely no way I am do­ing this,” Rachel said. “No way at all.”

The calm­ness of her tone took me aback. Shock, horror, out­rage – th­ese I had ex­pected. This mea­sured re­ac­tion, how­ever, was strange – and ef­fec­tive. I re­alised that, asked to sur­ren­der her phone and lap­top, her cal­cu­la­tion was that a de­mand so man­i­festly ab­surd would never – could never – be en­forced. It was as if

I’d sug­gested we should spend a week with­out food. Or oxy­gen.

Rachel got her first mo­bile phone when she was eight, way back in 2007. She got it so that when we were at our hol­i­day chalet in Kent in our na­tive UK, she could go off with her friends and let us know where she was.

“She can’t have a phone,” I protested to my wife at the time. “She’s eight.”

“It’ll be fine,” said Ni­cola. “It gives her some of the free­dom we used to have.” She was right. Rachel later dis­cov­ered tex­ting and mes­sag­ing. With a vengeance.

A year ago, teenaged girls hav­ing deemed, with ter­ri­fy­ing speed, that Black­Ber­rys were ob­so­lete – like, to­tally over – Rachel be­gan to lobby for, and swiftly ob­tained, her mother’s marginally last­gen­er­a­tion iPhone. I don’t think I’ve seen her more than a me­tre away from it since. I doubted she was go­ing to take our oldtech ex­per­i­ment se­ri­ously. And, so it proved. On Day 1, a Satur­day, Rachel was in­vited to a party. She came to say good­bye – her phone, as ever, in her hand. “You can’t take that,” I said. “Sorry?” “You can’t take your phone.” She took less than a sec­ond – smart girl – to se­lect the op­ti­mum line of ar­gu­ment. “How will I ring you to let you know I’m OK?”

“Well,” I stut­tered. “You’ll have to use the, er, land­line in the house.”

A stunned si­lence. “You’re say­ing I should call you on the home phone?” The con­tempt my daugh­ter in­serted into th­ese two last words is hard to con­vey in print. “Yes,” I said, fal­ter­ing. “Or, um, go to a call box... If they, er, still ex­ist.”

“I don’t know how to use a call box,” said Rachel. I caved in. Not a great start.

The truth is, the thought of my daugh­ter go­ing out at night with­out her mo­bile is as hor­ri­fy­ing to me as it is to her. We have put pre­cise pro­to­cols in place gov­ern­ing the tex­ting of where­abouts dur­ing the hours of dark­ness. Same goes for Sam. Never mind that when I was their age I’d go out, and un­til they heard the back door open my mum and dad had no idea where I was. Has tech­nol­ogy made my gen­er­a­tion more pro­tec­tive – more con­trol­ling – of our chil­dren than our par­ents were of us? Un­doubt­edly, yes.

Has tech­nol­ogy made my gen­er­a­tion more pro­tec­tive – more con­trol­ling – of our chil­dren than our par­ents were of us?

Get­ting the gamer to play along

Rachel, hard­line as she is, forms only 25 per cent of the fam­ily. The other three quar­ters are less com­mit­ted. Or so I thought. Sam has a mo­bile and a lap­top, but he isn’t, as far as I can tell, on them much. Al­though he did on one in­fa­mous oc­ca­sion make use of Google Trans­late to do his Span­ish home­work – and was swiftly rum­bled by his teacher for de­ploy­ing words in Span­ish so com­plex he was un­able to de­fine them in English. Yet Sam is at­tached to his iPod and his PS3. The iPod, for present pur­poses, is eas­ily re­placed by my Eight­ies-era Walk­man, no larger than a small brief­case, which I re­tain in a bot­tom drawer.

On Day 2 I handed the Walk­man over along with my three sur­viv­ing cas­settes – self-made mix tapes in­volv­ing U2, Sim­ple Minds, New Or­der and the like.

“Gee,” said Sam, eye­ing the head­phones, rad­i­cally in­fe­rior to the huge, lux­u­ri­ous pair he ha­bit­u­ally en­joys. “Thanks a lot.”

No such handy, if in­ad­e­quate, sub­sti­tute ex­ists for a PlayS­ta­tion. And to make mat­ters in­fin­itely worse, I had, id­i­ot­i­cally, not 24 hours be­fore this ex­per­i­ment was due to start, suc­cumbed to years of pres­sure and bought Sam his first Grand Theft Auto. There it sat in its box, end­less hours of mur­der and may­hem on of­fer. “Er, you can’t play it,” I was com­pelled to say. “What?” “You can’t play it. No GTA in 1980.” Hor­ri­fied pause. “So,” he asked. “What did you play in 1980?”

“Well, there was this ping­pong sim­u­la­tion you could plug into the telly,” I said. “But I pre­ferred Owzthat.” “What’s Owzthat?” “It’s a cricket game. You roll a lit­tle metal cylin­der and score runs. I used to play Eng­land ver­sus Me Plus Ten Girls I Fancy.”

Sam didn’t want to play Owzthat. How weird is that? Nei­ther did he want to limit his TV view­ing to the ris­i­ble three chan­nels we had in 1980. He wanted to watch MythBusters. He wanted to watch re­peats of Top Gear. He wanted to watch Stor­ageWars. Most of all, of course, hav­ing waited years, he wanted to play GTA 5.

I can man­age my son more eas­ily than I can man­age my daugh­ter. There­fore, through­out

most of Day 2, I was able to keep Sam at bay with darts, box­ing, a nos­tal­gic spin of my old vinyl – Dy­lan, Co­hen, Si­mon, Bacharach, Ber­lin; a se­lec­tion, essen­tially, of the song­writ­ing greats. He re­sponded well. Who wouldn’t? Af­ter­wards, we chat­ted about this and that. Spouted non­sense, ba­si­cally. Which we do any­way. Then I said, “Oh, OK,” and watched while he tried to crack the next level on Grand Theft Auto. Then, I showed him my progress on your mis­sion: de­fend the land­ing force from be­hind enemy lines (my pre­ferred sniper game). I have to say, the boy was im­pressed.

By Day 3 Ni­cola and I de­cided the best way to de­tach Sam from the temp­ta­tions of tech­nol­ogy was to send him to his grandma’s house in Hull, where life con­tin­ues largely un­changed by the past four decades. Off he went, and sure enough, he spent a bliss­ful few days watch­ing telly, eat­ing sweets, cakes and choco­late.

The par­ent trap

What of Ni­cola and me? I mean, you can ex­cuse the chil­dren, it’s all they’ve known, and the salient point is that what they’ve known has been use­ful, in­struc­tive, en­ter­tain­ing and, most im­por­tantly, re­li­able. But Ni­cola and I reached ma­tu­rity be­fore any of this was avail­able. In our day, the height of tech­no­log­i­cal so­phis­ti­ca­tion was the Bre­ville sand­wich maker. Tel­lies were tem­per­a­men­tal. Record play­ers and tape recorders fre­quently acted up. We didn’t grow up with any faith in ma­chines. Ma­chines of­ten didn’t work and when they did they weren’t much good. We were com­pelled to de­velop other skills, in­ter­ests and pas­times.

We read. We went to the youth club on a Fri­day night. We walked aim­lessly. We went to dis­cos. We – or rather I – of­ten made a damned nui­sance of our­selves. Later, we fre­quented the the­atre and, in the spirit of the early Eight­ies, the po­lit­i­cal meet­ing. Oh, yeah, we made our own fun in them days. But not so much fun that ei­ther of us was tempted to go back.

In those for­ma­tive years we surely amassed an en­vi­able re­serve of cul­tural and in­tel­lec­tual cap­i­tal on which to re­cline dur­ing this week of famine? Fair play, there’s no deny­ing this new kit is con­ve­nient. OK, more than that, it’s amaz­ing, tremen­dous, ex­hil­a­rat­ing. What’s more – this still never fails to sur­prise me – it works.

I turn on my Mac, my Sam­sung, my Ap­ple, it beeps, it glows, it does its thing, and then there it sits, await­ing my com­mand. Still, we can take it or leave it, right? Wrong. At some point dur­ing our 40s, both now nudg­ing 50, Ni­cola and I be­came as ad­dicted to all this 21st-cen­tury in­no­va­tion as the most gauche adolescent. Nei­ther of us got be­yond Day 3. She al­leges that, de­spite my af­fect­ing old-school dis­dain, I am ac­tu­ally more hooked than she is. I say, “Hang on. You’re on that iPad last thing at night and first thing in the morn­ing, check­ing out so­fas or what­ever, your phone pings much more than mine [here I strug­gle not to sound bit­ter], you put ev­ery other TV show on se­ries link and

‘You’re con­stantly on Wikipedia, the BBC, and who knows what else. You say it’s for work but it isn’t, is it? Not all of it?

you use the sat­nav for jour­neys you’ve made 100 times. And you’ve tracked Rachel via her iPhone – don’t tell me you haven’t – and there are civil-lib­er­ties is­sues at stake there.”

“I am not,” Ni­cola re­torts, “look­ing at so­fas on the iPad. That’s just crude sex­ism. I thought you were above that. And you’ve got a nerve to talk about civil lib­er­ties – you’d put a tag on Rachel if you could. What’s more, while I use th­ese things when I need to, you sit in front of that com­puter all day, ev­ery day. You’re con­stantly on Wikipedia, the BBC, and who knows what else. You say it’s for work but it isn’t, is it? Not all of it?” She con­cluded, “I bet that I can sur­vive with­out this stuff more eas­ily than you can.”

You know what? She’s right. And it’s OK. Here I sit, in the glow of this mon­i­tor, check­ing, trawl­ing, chas­ing links ever more tan­gen­tial to the sub­ject. By and large, what I’m do­ing is worth­while. Hav­ing to watch TV in the tra­di­tional fash­ion is dire. I watch a fair num­ber of TV pro­grammes, but hardly any of them, not for sev­eral years, as part of the nor­mal sched­ule. The screen seemed a ridicu­lously long way away com­pared to a com­puter mon­i­tor. I’d also for­got­ten how ap­palling ad­verts are. I hated not be­ing able to choose the start time, fast for­ward... It felt like an invasion of my lib­erty. Which it was.

Even an ap­par­ently small con­straint – us­ing an old phone to make calls in the evening rather than a nor­mal one I can carry all over the house – was sur­pris­ingly hard to deal with. I’m used to be­ing able to make a call and move around do­ing other stuff – tidy­ing up the kitchen, sort­ing out the bot­tles and pa­pers for re­cy­cling... To have to sit in one place was frus­trat­ing. Be­yond frus­trat­ing, ac­tu­ally. Un­nat­u­ral. Waste­ful.

Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy is so of­ten de­bated in terms of the harm that it’s sup­posed to do that it’s easy to over­look how lib­er­at­ing and how darn con­ve­nient it is. You’re sup­posed to feel there is a ben­e­fit to slow­ing down, fo­cus­ing on one ac­tiv­ity at a time, re­duc­ing the num­ber of stim­uli in your life. Through­out this ex­per­i­ment, I didn’t feel any such ben­e­fit. I felt bored, un­con­nected, lim­ited, out of touch – and, if not ex­actly pow­er­less, then cer­tainly much more be­holden to the de­ci­sions of oth­ers. I felt, in other words, re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to how I felt grow­ing up in a pro­vin­cial sub­urb in the Sev­en­ties. Why would I want to feel like that all over again? Once was enough. And why would I want to in­flict it on my chil­dren?

Robert and Ni­cola Cramp­ton thought they would stand a bet­ter chance at giv­ing up mod­ern con­ve­niences than their chil­dren, Sam and Rachel, but were sur­prised by the re­sults of their vir­tual trip back in time

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