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