Olga and I returned yesterday from a long weekend in Birmingham. That sounds like one of those joke competition prizes doesn’t it? “First prize, a week’s holiday in Birmingham, second prize two weeks!” But that would be unfair to Britain’s second largest city. It was the first time either of us had visited it and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we liked it a lot. It is clean, modern and prosperous and there are entertainments and amusements to suit all tastes.
We went to a ballet at the Hippodrome Theatre, a concert at the Symphony Hall, visited the National Sea Life Centre, the Botanical Gardens, Winterbourne House and Gardens and the art gallery and museum. But on Saturday night the place was heaving with squealing teenage girls wearing clothes so skimpy, despite the near freezing temperatures, that I was concerned for their health. They were there for a concert by someone called Justin Bieber, whom we had never heard of, but who is apparently the current teenage heart-throb.
I didn’t take a ham radio. I looked at the APRS map for Birmingham and it appeared to be a bit of an RF desert. The only repeater near enough the centre to be accessible using a handheld was D-Star. So I decided to save a bit of weight and space in my suitcase and give the hobby a break.
I switched off my mobile when we went into the theatre on Friday evening (to avoid the embarrassment of it ringing during the performance) and didn’t switch it on again until Monday when we were preparing to leave. That wasn’t a deliberate intention to be incommunicado so much as absent mindedness. I didn’t miss it, so it never crossed my mind to switch it back on. Having grown up in a house that didn’t have a home phone, and having only been persuaded a few years ago that a mobile would be useful “just for emergencies”, it has never concerned me that when I am away from home I am out of touch.
But it seems to me that many people can’t bear to be disconnected for half an hour, never mind a weekend. On the bus, on the train, walking along the street, even in the theatre during the interval people were staring at the tiny screens held in front of their face. There is a TV advert – I think it’s for the iPad – in which, apparently without irony, people are shown clustered round a screen while a fabulous view or famous building goes unnoticed in the background. In the Birmingham Botanical Gardens one woman appeared engrossed in interacting with her Blackberry whenever we saw her, ignoring the plants. Do these people ever switch off? If you are constantly connected, receiving a continual stream of information which you must absorb or respond to, when do you get time to think, to dream, to appreciate the real world around you?
Technology was supposed to be our slave, helping us to do things more easily. But it seems to have become a drug. The technology itself is amazing, but for me the most important feature is the ability to switch it off.