Wednesday, 18 November 2009


My aunt has recently moved out of her old apartment, an apartment where I had spent quite a lot of time as a young boy in the company of her and my late uncle. Today, while at the office and while going through yet another exciting day at the office, I caught myself daydreaming of that gone by era: how I used to play in the apartment, and how doors would be kept open and I would even go and play at neighbours’ apartments. The line of thought caught on as I remembered how small and rather sparse these apartments were; no one I knew at the time has had much in the way of means to spare. Memories of an old gone neighbour showing me photos of his kids floated by and I recalled his stories about raising his kids in his apartment, putting some shame into my current quest for a bigger place to live in and putting the amount of effort we’ve been investing into this quest of ours in context: people lived in much worse conditions than we do now, and yet they flourished and they were happy. And it all took place within my lifetime and within my world. What has happened since to cause the drastic changes in the way we live since?
And then it occurred to me: Boredom.
When I look back at my early childhood days, the days before responsibilities kicked in, the predominant notion was boredom. TV was available through a single channel that worked for just a few hours a day, books were available at the library only (buying books was quite rare), and films were limited to cinema visits. With the internet having to wait some fifteen to twenty years to emerge, people had only one channel with which they could guarantee an entertaining time: they had to do stuff with one another. Hence the open doors and the open social interactions.
Today things are different. I have enough unread books in my personal library to last me a few years. I can listen to the music in my collection for twenty four hours a day over a few months without listening to the same track twice. And while I have a big collection of movies to entertain myself with, I have movies to last a lifetime within easy access. Not to mention video games. And last, but not least, the internet means that the only time I will lack varied entertainment is when something goes wrong with my PC or my internet connection (last time that had happened was due to a blackout taking out most of the state).
The result of this transition from the boring world of yesteryear to our packed up world is that our interactions with one another are limited. In order to see someone nowadays we need to book our calendars weeks or even months in advance. People are able to live half way across the world from their families, but when they come for a visit their families will quickly regard them the same way they regard a plant and go kill some brain cells in front of their extra loud TVs. Whereas I used to play outside quite a lot as a child, nowadays you hardly see free roaming kids about; what you do see is fleets of armoured four wheel drives chauffeuring their precious cargo around to ensure they’re on time for their macramé class.
I can come up with two things that contributed to this deep social change: The first was gradual but significant technological improvements, the things that allow us to have multiple TV channels all day and all of the night (to name but one example). The second was all of us being significantly better off than we were a few decades ago, providing us with the means with which we can tap on those advanced technologies. In short, what took place was all of us living in what most people would describe as a healthy economy.
But is this healthy economy truly contributing to our well being and happiness? I think the answer is a mixed bag. On one hand, it is clear that the exposure to a more stimulating environment is making us smarter overall, at least in certain respects (those that are commonly measured when, say, applying for a university position). On the other hand, we humans are social creatures by definition; none of us would get too far without a social structure around, and there can be no denying the damages caused by this social erosion.
Personally, I’m happy to sound like an old man and state that I’m troubled with younger people taking the way things currently are for granted and thinking there is no need and definitely no way to increase social interactions. In the past, parents managed with their babies even though they didn't have disposable nappies because they had lots of help around; now we've lost that loving feeling. Yet are only living the way we do because we’ve shaped our world in this particular way; but we can undo things, if only by a bit, in order to improve this state of affairs.

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