A Digital Life

There is a very real division in our world today, between those who remember a time before digital technology was an integral part of our lives, and those who are immersed in everything that is digital. That line in the sand isn’t necessarily between people considered “old” and those considered “young”; my own generation (I was born in 1981) grew up with the beginnings of digital technology that were widely available; gaming consoles were in their infancy, the internet entered its early phase during the 1990s, and encyclopedia CD-ROMs were the future. There were two computers in our school library, and one classroom had enough computers for half the class to learn word processing at a time.

The world has changed beyond reckoning during the intervening decades; technology is integrated into our lives. Mobile phones connect us to the world, computer gamers make a profression out of fun, and portable computers – laptops and tablets – keep people working without being chained to a desk.

In the 1950s – within living memory – the home telephone was undoubtedly the pinnacle of domestic technology; allowing us to stay in touch with friends and family instantly. But they were expensive to use; every three minute chat cost between 5p and 20p, at a time when a pint of milk cost 3p. Those people who could afford to use one didn’t use it very often – and even then, only used it for short calls.

It wasn’t until 1959 that people were able to make long-distance calls themselves, without having to go through an operator; that allowed people to be charged for the call and nothing else. The reduction in cost made it accessible to a lot more people, and its popularity soared.

Computers in the same time were not fit for home use; there were very few around, and even the smallest one was the size of a fridge. They wasted energy and expended a lot of their electricity as heat – but they were new and unusual, and so treated as mythical devices by those who knew about them.

Seventy years later, computers are just another commodity, more common by far than home phones. You can buy a computer “off the shelf” in the shops, and very few people are without a computer of some description. Our devices now use more computing power than the devices used to send humanity to the moon in 1969, which does beg the question (at least to me) why we’re not using that computer power to reach even further into outer space. But that’s a conversation – and a debate – for a different article.

We have become globally interconnected in the 21st century, in ways that were unimaginable back in those early days of computer power. The internet has shrunk the world for those with both the access and the interest, and has divided humanity into the “haves” and the “have-nots” – those who either choose not to be involved with the digital world or who simply aren’t interested in it.

We are currently in a period of huge change; technology gives us opportunities unimagined in the 1990s. Jobs exist now that would never have existed without technology (gamer, IT technician …), and no sector has been unaffected by advances in computing power; doctors can remotely operate machines designed to operate on patients, and bankers can make trades and deals at a moment’s notice.

Interestingly, the ability to text on mobile phones was never intended to be a feature available to users; it was originally designed for engineers testing equipment. However, it was made available, and texting became hugely popular; even in 2006, companies worldwide made $80 million from texts. In the early days, of course, you sent text only, and were charged per message; now, unlimited text messages are a common feature of mobile phone contracts. Statistics vary as to how many text messages are routinely sent, but it’s estimated to be in the hundreds of millions every week.

The world wide web has evolved massively over the past thirty years, now playing an integral part of our lives. It’s hard to imagine now our lives without it, but imagine if AskJeeves or AltaVista had been the dominant search engine; our language would be very different, for a start. Sharing information and documents is the easiest it’s ever been, and is also the quickest it’s ever been; before wireless broadband technology, we needed to be directly plugged into the phone line, and no-one could make any calls while you were online – causing untold family arguments.

The 2020 lockdowns showed just how vital digital technology was in the 21st century. We had to adapt quickly after a pandemic spread to the UK, and work didn’t just stop; the wheels of commerce, social care, science, news. and every other sector needed to carry on, so we carried on at home. Laptops, broadband connections, and comfy chairs suddenly became essentials between 9am and 5pm; Zoom became a commonly-used phrase, and the daily commute stopped at the dining room table.

A hundred years ago, when the Spanish flu epidemic caused similar panic and lockdowns, work stopped if people couldn’t leave the house. Now, it’s just a temporary blip whilst we make sure our modems are working properly.

Work differs in so many ways to the pre-digital age; banks don’t need as many counter staff, online shopping is ubiquitous, and self-service is loved and loathed in equal measure. With working from home set to be a feature of our lives far more than ever, employers are wondering whether those office blocks and town centre shops are needed any more; pound and dollar signs are flashing before the eyes of many senior executives, have no doubt.

Governments have often tried to control, regulate, and restrict our ability to use online services; social media is the most commonly-desired tool to regulate. Some countries – repressive regimes all – have banned independent social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc) because of the freedom on there to criticise. China even has its only social media platform that is tightly controlled.

On the other hand, it can’t be controlled everywhere; back in 2011, the Arab Spring took off across the Arabic world, with some dictators being felled through organised, planned efforts that were coordinated on Twitter and Facebook. Such huge social and political change was made possible by the digital world, and we should be proud of that; activists planned everything online and were a lot safer in the process.

But with so much of our lives moving online, security concerns are on the increase. We run the risk of being scammed, cloned, spammed, or removed from the system somehow and not able to access services because we don’t officially exist. It’s expected that IT systems will provide robust security so that our personal information doesn’t get shared with anyone else, and online security has become even more tough over the past few years. However, lots of information is held about us; in November 2008, two CDs containing personal information about 25 million people was lost by HM Revenue and Customs when they were posted to the National Audit Office. If criminals got hold of that information, then there would be the risk of our identity or money being stolen. That’s an appalling breach of our security and our privacy, and there are increasing penalties for people and organisations who don’t follow the rules.

We’re living in the digital revolution, a modern-day equivalent of the 19th century industrial revolution. When mobile phones were first mass-produced, they allowed for phone calls and text messages, with screens that were miniscule. The battery also didn’t last very long, and so you would always be worrying about where you had left your charger.

Now, mobile phones are powered by better, more efficient batteries that go on and on, and the phones themselves are so much more superior. They are mini-computers, allowing us to call, text, check emails, go on social media, navigate through new places using a map, write, and almost live our lives through this pocket-sized device. I use my phone more for all the different functions than I ever do for calling people; in fact, I hardly ever use the text service either, as there are other services my friends and I use more – WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and so on.

We are taught as children how to behave in particular situations; how to read someone’s body language, facial expressions, tone, and mannerisms. It’s harder when we’re on the phone because we only have the vocal cues to work from, so it’s harder still when we’re online – we don’t have any social cues to work from. That’s why good manners – netiquette, as it’s more commonly known – is so important; we must think even more carefully about the things we’re writing because of how they will interpreted.

One of the most well-known (we can but hope) netiquette techniques is actually a simple one; DON’T WRITE YOUR MESSAGE IN CAPITAL LETTERS. It comes across as shouting, and is probably one of the biggest no-nos. We should also take our time when wanting to respond to something offensive or rude online; there is often a feeling that, because we’re sat behind a keyboard instead of face-to-face with a person, that we can “let loose” and really go to town with our frustrations. But that’s not the case – just because we’re annoyed and frustrated doesn’t mean we can act differently than we would in person. Courtesy and respect are just as important online as they are offline.

Most users of technology are functional users; we know how to turn the machines on, operate them to a greater or lesser degree, and then turn them off again. But we’ve also had to become aware of at least a few technical issues over the last few years – issues that allow us to keep our technology, and our information, safe.

Malware is any software designed to cause damage to our technology. Viruses are ubiquitous, travelling from device to device through messages that are clicked, USB sticks that are plugged into computers, and so many innovative ways that scammers think of; everyone has to constantly be on their guard. A friend of mine had his Facebook account hacked recently, and I received a message with a video attached – the message asked me to “take a look at this”. Inevitably, it would have infected my computer with some kind of malware.

Technology is here to stay. The internet is here to stay. We are plugged into computers in a way that we might never have imagined in the days when they were vast, bulky affairs used only by the government, military, and universities. They have improved our lives in ways I’m not even able to quantify in a single article, but we could all name at least one area of our life where things are better or simpler because of our connection to technology. But we must always police our relationship with technology, so that we remain in control and switched onto potential dangers.

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