Before the BlackBerry: our recent affluence has diluted the old sense of community Photo: ALAMY
I was one of the luckier ones. My BlackBerry never actually collapsed in The Great Global Catastrophe last week – it just staggered a bit. But I was, nevertheless, absolutely furious. Not at the service disruption, which was a minor irritation, but because the public relations fiasco might push my favourite electronic device into extinction. And then I would be forced into buying one of those over-hyped, over-priced toys which the newly canonised Saint Steven of Apple had convinced people that they wanted.
The relentless pressure to upgrade, to keep up with the latest state-of-the-art innovations, may be at its most obvious and ruthless in the electronic gadget business. But that competitiveness (and the brilliant manipulation of public perceptions that it involves) is just a function of a wider cultural change: people could not be persuaded or bullied into buying things they did not know they needed if they were not quite so rich. (Or if society didn’t offer them so many simulacrums of personal wealth in the form of easy credit.)
Having lived in Britain since the 1960s, when even many middle-class homes did not have telephones, central heating or fridges, let alone the full panoply of home entertainment equipment that now counts as standard issue, I am astounded by the change in expectations. Am I grateful on behalf of a younger adult generation that takes for granted the ownership of a car, a warm house and the labour-saving appliances that make family life so much less exhausting? Of course I am. Do I think that this affluence and everything that it buys are undiluted blessings – that there has been no loss in this gallop into acquisitiveness? No, I do not.
Maybe I will sound too much like an old puritanical Marxist, ranting about the capitalist conspiracy to lure gullible consumers into buying more and more, if I say that the coming reduction of affluence (what economists call a “readjustment” in disposable income) might not necessarily be such a terrible thing. It is worth noting, on the conspiracy front, that the price of home entertainment goodies, which had been falling consistently for many years, has now dramatically leapt: DAB radios are far more expensive than traditional ones, as are “smart” televisions, which incorporate computers.
Now don’t get me wrong, I believe profoundly in the value of mass prosperity and the ability of free markets to deliver it: the personal freedom, self-determination and dignity that come with financial independence are transforming for individuals and for the societies in which they are generally available. And yet, and yet… through this very independence that comes with relative wealth, something has been lost.
When our children were very small, we did not own a car, nor did many of our friends and neighbours – such a state being not uncommon in an inner London district in the 1970s. So the friends who did own cars used to give lifts to the supermarket, or to the doctor, or wherever, to those who did not. And nobody on ordinary middle-class earnings could afford a nanny – they looked then like a nearly extinct species – so we had au pairs, or used informal childminders (who were usually friends, or friends of friends).
Some people solved their childcare problems by letting rooms in their homes to single mothers in return for childminding. (This was a very common arrangement – we could afford bigger houses in those days when property prices were so much lower.) Because we could not afford to pay for evening baby-sitting, we formed well-organised baby-sitting circles in which tokens were exchanged for hours – and these became life-saving neighbourhood friendship networks. (Were we part of a Big Society without giving it a name?)
In other words, we helped each other. Because we had so little money, we had to improvise mutual support systems. We became a true community precisely because we needed each other’s goodwill and assistance, and could not buy our way out of difficulties or practical problems. I know that parents now share school runs and arrange play dates during the holidays, and I am sure that neighbours are still helpful to one another in emergencies. But is there the same sense of extended family – of real interdependence – that there was when people relied on one another for day-to-day needs?
This is what is known in political circles as “solidarity”, which was once a strong feature of working-class life before (as Noel Gallagher of all people, noted last week ) its traditional values were junked in favour of celebrity culture and materialism. By the 1970s, when Britain’s economy was in a spiral of decline, the middle classes were impoverished, too, and so they discovered their own resources – and the consolations of social connectedness.
But it is not just relations between families that have been disrupted, or attenuated, by prosperity. Much has been written about the mental isolation that is bred in children and adolescents by computer addiction: that quasi-autistic condition that obsessive interaction with a screen seems to inculcate. It may or may not be true that this compulsion can actually have neurological consequences, as Baroness Greenfield, the ex-director of the Royal Institution, has claimed. But what cannot be denied is that a child or an adult who is so preoccupied with relating to an inanimate object is cut off – in a world of his own, as they say. The household affluent enough to provide each member with his own television, computer and smartphone is spared the need for most forms of social contact.
In a quaint historical era that some of us can just recall, families had to negotiate what would be watched on the one and only television in the house. This process was not without friction – particularly between the genders and the generations – but at least you got to know each other’s preferences and predilections, and the arguments in defence of those preferences offered training in social give-and-take. So the individual household, walled up in its suburban palace with every conceivable form of electronic equipment, can be isolated from its community. And the members of that household – staring at their individual screens or texting away on their phones – can lead lives separate from one another.
Is it possible that if people are allowed to adjust to being just a bit poorer – if the heavy hand of regulation on such things as informal childcare, for example, can be removed – that there might be a chance to recover something valuable that has been almost forgotten?
**似水流雲**欢迎您 更多精彩请阅读* * 似 水 流 雲* * * 精 品 收 藏 * *【原创随笔】【历史天空】【幽默爆笑】【电子书