One of my favourite albums of all time, Radiohead’s devastating dystopian masterpiece OK Computer, will be 10 years old this month. When I first read this, I could hardly believe it. But this disbelief is an all too common emotion these days… the relentless march of time really does appear to be speeding up, damn it. However, this anniversary got me thinking about my life back in 1997. And my golly, how things have changed. It feels like 20 years ago.
1997 was one of the wettest summers last century and on a very grey London day, in a bright silver, grey dress I got wed. Thom Yorke’s brooding, mournful voice and the multi textured musical sounds were a big part of the day (at least the reception) and indeed the rest of the year. And into 1998. I listened to OK Computer so much when I was pregnant with my first child that when he was restless and agitated as a baby it was Thom and co.’s sounds that calmed him down.
However, what struck me most about my life 10 years ago was just how small a part computers, and technology, played in it. I did have a pc – given to me by a techie cousin who is now persona non grata following a bitter family feud – one that even had Windows ‘95 on it. But it was something that sat in the corner of our tiny Brixton flat, dusty and barely used, looking out at our busy lives with its large grey eye, winking at us occasionally when we remembered to turn it on. It must have been quite lonely.
I typed the odd letter and article on the thing and understood from more up to date colleagues that you could do all sorts of wonderful things on it – like mail merging and spread sheets. But I had little need of such things. If I wanted to research something I had to trek to the local library, or Collingwood, holidays were booked at a travel agent and if I needed to know the time of the next train to say, Chester, I phoned national rail and a real, live person gave me the options. Friends telephoned – on landlines – and distant aunts and friends overseas received, mostly handwritten, letters.
I had never heard of email or the internet, let alone used it. I didn’t ‘discover’ email until around the millennium; it could well have been 2001 before I took to it in earnest. But take to it I did, like the proverbial duck to water. As did the rest of the world. Now I cannot imagine how I got by without it but I do find myself wondering how healthy it is. Like all things, best in moderation, perhaps. After all a telephone call can resolve some things in minutes – things that take up inordinate amounts of to-ing and fro-ing via email, or worse, text. I can type pretty quickly but I simply don’t have a well developed enough thumb to text that fast and can’t be fagged to get to grips with predictive programmes.
And I know it’s been said a gazillion times before but are we losing the ability to communicate properly – person to real, live person? Also, it’s not often said but computers do malfunction and break down and generally don’t do as they’re told. And we all know how infuriating that can be. There are online games which allow you to thump a pc, smash it to smithereens and I’ll bet some of us have given the real thing a beating. I’ve certainly smacked a few and raged at them. But I wouldn’t dream of smacking a child and yet, computers are still in their infancy. Who knows what they’ll be able to do in another 10 years time. Run our lives for us I expect. They could take over, they’re pretty close already.
So back in 1997 when Radiohead railed against the optimistic zeitgeist and sang of paranoid androids, subterranean homesick aliens, globalisation and being let down they were on many levels, particularly in relation to technology, prophetic. You have been warned.