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Technology: My new best friend

Emma Clegg takes stock of her techno involvement. She finds herself lacking, but Corona has brought enlightenment in unparalleled ways.

I am from the generation where computers were not really a thing. Well, in fact at school we had an option to do Computer Studies for O Level (now called GCSEs), which I was very keen to avoid. It involved a DOS (black background) screen and illuminated white (or was it green?) letters and programming codes, which, when I saw my friend’s folder of coursework, reminded me of a dark, abstract mathematical world beyond language, literature and arts, which is what I liked best. Some of my classmates had Game Boys and other consoles, but I rose above all this early gaming technology disapprovingly, sticking to the traditional games espoused by my family – Monopoly, Cluedo, Scrabble, draughts and card games. I did have an anxious shadow in my head about whether this might be something crucial that was missing from my education, but this idea was swiftly overridden.

My mother – who in the late 1980s was notable for not being able to put a cassette (the right way up) in a tape recorder and press ‘Play’, even when I wrote her clear written instructions – is a confirmed Luddite, so it’s likely I took my lead from her, embracing fresh air, traditional activities and the rhythms of the natural world over anything that involved pressing successive buttons.

Once at work, I was fortunate (given that I had been dragging my feet on the technology front) in being catapulted into a company where I had to use both a PC and top-of-the-range Macs that were part of a new picture library project being developed by the arts body I was working for. I remember going in an hour early to work and spending the time practising how to touch type on the PC. It was actually a very cool way of learning, where letters fell from the top of the screen and made their way to the bottom, and you had to type ’em before they got there – if you typed ’em, they would disappear, otherwise they would reduce your score. The letters increased in number as you went, turned into actual words and speeded up throughout each session, which got me into a state of heightened panic and obsessive ambition to beat my previous score. The result? A very impressive typing speed. Hurrah – I’d joined the serried ranks of those who worked with computers.

This was when I was introduced to the worldwide web. I was very sceptical to begin with. It was being hailed as the future of technology, of business, of human progress, but anyone could put things on it. It just didn’t seem professional: where was the quality control? That seems ironic now when the occasional loss of a broadband connection throws me into edgy irritation and abject misery.

My next company was a bit less advanced computer wise, and had a bank of five macs with varying degrees of speed and performance effectiveness which a team of 12 people or so had to ‘share’, booking in time on them. There were only two really that were worth using, so things could get quite competitive. Then suddenly, inspired I expect by a sudden influx of revenue, we all had new Macs and emails. That was a superb moment in my technology career. This messaging system was all mine.

I’ve kept up pretty well ever since. Mind you, it’s true that my first mobile phone – a slim orange brick by Bosch that made me feel very slick and businessy – came very late in my career path, about 17 years ago. I have also been slow to adopt social media trends in my personal life and have so far refused Facebook, instead doorstepping my partner’s Facebook account, enjoying the good bits without having to be part of it, and correcting any punctuation errors in his responses. All in all, leading up to the current Coronavirus era, I have come a long way, perhaps always feeling slightly more behind than I was, with an X Generation son who communicates by Snapchat and Instagram, and seems to be able to intuitively sort out software problems and who regularly throws me withering ‘you’re so out of touch’ glances.

Now that Corona is here, however, I have drawn a definitive line under any remnants of my techno reluctance. In the face of staying at home for a long period of time, in the face of no social interactions outside family, in the face of not knowing what is going on without it, technology in all its permutations is now king. I appreciate it; I value it; I embrace it.

The radio means that I can tune in pronto every morning to the latest terrifying projected statistics and stockmarket falls. The TV means that I can watch crowds of people queuing to go up Snowdon, and witness the empty supermarket shelves. I can see Donald Trump pretending it’s not happening and Boris modelling social distancing and trying to be Winston Churchill. Netflix and Sky mean I can step into a world of make-believe where I can escape the emotional exhaustion of reinventing myself every day. Texting means that I can contact everyone who I care about who has a mobile phone (who normally I ignore because my life is just too full on) and share thoughts about how it’s all totes crazy. Email means I can do the same, but in more detail and send interesting or amusing attachments. Skype means that I can actually see other people, and drink wine with friends of an evening and share dramatic stories about our days (everything, after all, now feels dramatic).

The internet (or ‘on the line’ as my mother calls it) is bursting with amusing tweets and gifs and videos and cartoons about the new world we’ve found ourselves in. My favourite so far is a cartoon of Where’s Wally, in a park with four people round him, each at a distance of two metres. And the tweet that says “Was feeling nervous about the Coronavirus, but have just received an email from Halfords, and am reassured.” And the tweet explaining that a daughter is co-working with her father at the kitchen table; her father is having an indepth conversation about structural engineering, and she is drawing a duck.

I have also written a letter to the parents of a student from China who is living with us while he studies for his A levels – which have now been cancelled. I can write it in English and with the help of Google Translate I can send them a letter in Chinese. And they send me one back in polished English (probably not GT), quoting from Shelley: “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

My thoughts about technology as a youngster was that it was a bit dull, a bit too serious, a bit too uncreative, a bit too not me. My perspective on this has shifted over the years, but now I know for sure – in the middle of this super real, knock-you-sideways situation where nothing seems so certain any more – that it gives me the ability to communicate warmly with others, to find out about what’s happening all around the world, to keep in touch with friends and family, to share, to react, to support, to laugh and to cry, to stay sane and to feel part of a community that cares.

Of course spring will come, and what’s more it’s almost certain that technology – in combination with some talented research brains – will help us with that, too. Bring it on.