We’ve all this technology so why does it feel like we’re going backwards?

The little ‘chat’ screen on the bottom right hand corner of my Facebook page popped up. It was my cousin Steven in New Zealand.

“Great win for Vale,” he wrote, before informing me that he’s been flat-hunting in Wellington for his daughter who is about to take up a job as an air hostess.

A quick exchange of messages and he was off to bed, leaving yours truly, who is stuck in the office, to marvel at the wonders of modern technology which allow me to hook up regularly with a bloke who is 11,500 miles away.

This same technology has allowed me to plan my first trip to the States later this year – with the help of an American friend on the same social networking site who is going halves with me on hotel costs. Result.

Chez Tideswell now has a brilliant, super-fast computer in the living room which all of us (including my five and seven-year-olds) use for both work and play.

The little ’uns are on there most days playing superhero games or navigating their school’s ‘virtual learning environment’ – their mastery of the mouse never ceasing to amaze me.

Meanwhile, we grown-ups log in to do a bit of work from home or use the computer to pay for shopping with plastic, check cinema times or just look stuff up.

At the same time our mobile telephones are never far away – beeping, buzzing or flashing to tell us we’ve had a text message or email.

It’s all about that instant connection, the must-have applications and essential convenience for our ‘busier-than-ever’ lives.

The strange thing is that for all the advancements and the benefits, for all that the world has never been a smaller place, I dare say many of us have never felt more alone.

Notorious Eighties throwback I may be, but I can’t help but feel that because of all this technology we’ve actually lost something very precious.

Take social networking, for example: It’s brilliant for keeping in touch with people you don’t see very often or who live overseas and it’s a wonderful tool for organising reunions, charity dos and the like.

It can also be a great force for good, for bringing together like-minded people and, as I discovered recently, for finding lost pets.

More to the point, however, it’s a whingers’ paradise filled with the minutiae of people’s lives that even they can’t possibly find interesting.

Whereas a few years ago every street had the nosey-neighbour curtain-twitchers who knew everything, these days it’s far easier for anyone with a PC.

Just log on to Facebook for streams of: ‘I can’t believe it’s Monday. Can’t be bothered with work’; ‘I’m sooooooo fed up :-(’; ‘I am so lucky to have such-and-such in my life’; or ‘After all I’ve done for you and you treat me like this’ type nonsense.

Worse still is the: ‘Joanne Bloggs is 18 weeks pregnant today which means her baby is the size of a satsuma’ type updates. I kid you not.

This is all done for attention, of course, with people failing to realise there’s a fine line between sharing something funny or unusual with a virtual community and filling up other people’s ‘news feeds’ with pointless drivel.

Like an addiction, social networking cons many users into thinking that they must post daily – or even every couple of hours – despite the fact they have nothing of any consequence to say.

Rather than getting out meeting real people or having friends and relatives visit them, it seems many social networkers would rather sit at their computers having virtual relationships where caring involves simply clicking the ‘like’ button. Surely that can’t be healthy.

There are at least a couple of generations now who have grown up with this technology and, because of it, many of them are seriously socially-challenged.

Teenagers have always been renowned for being know-it-all ignoramuses but mobile telephones have taken this to a whole new level.

In my youth Walkmans were seen as the big evil because they produced zombies who were unable to acknowledge the existence of others. Nowadays it’s worse because you have children who are either texting, tweeting or updating their Facebook statuses while listening to music and ignoring you at the same time.

If I’m coming across as an old fart then I make no apologies because I don’t think I’m alone in despairing at the way in which technology actually diminishes our lives as much as it enhances them.

I was talking to a teacher the other night. For the record, she’s younger than me and she was bemoaning the fact that her boss hadn’t banned mobile telephones in the secondary school where she works.

Her view was that they make it very hard to enforce discipline or hold the attention of pupils who come up with all manner of excuses as to why they need to be checking them every five minutes (usually something to do with a sick relative, apparently).

As for ‘cyber-bullying’, let’s just say she hadn’t a clue how society should tackle something she reckoned was rife.

Interestingly, my teacher friend also despairs at the way in which the internet is producing students who are unable to think for themselves and for whom the answer to everything is ‘Google’.

She said: “I say to them that the very least they should do when they copy and paste stuff from the internet is to change a few words around”.

In contrast, I remember bus trips up to the reference library at Hanley on a Saturday morning when I was 15 to research my history homework. To this day I still love libraries.

Call me old fashioned, but I still read books each night before bed. Currently I’m on The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Give it a try. It’s great.

However, sadly, there are millions for whom picking up a physical book – with a cover and pages – is an alien concept these days.

There are even more who will never know the simple pleasure of making an arrangement to meet their mates on a Friday night and then not speaking to them for a week – which means you can catch up and actually have something to say.

It was author Aldous Huxley who wrote: “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.”

With a high street on its knees – thanks in no small part to the internet – with text speak replacing the English language for many, and social networking replacing real relationships, it is hard to argue with his logic.

Anyway, must dash. Have to update my Facebook status with a moan about me working too hard. Lol.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday


We would be all the poorer without libraries

BETWEEN the ages of 14 and 16, every Saturday morning I would walk the mile or so from my house in Sneyd Green to the city centre with a rucksack slung over my shoulder.
My destination was Hanley Library and I didn’t mind the trek because I was on a homework mission.
Geoff Ball, that most charismatic and engaging of history teachers at Holden Lane High, would ask my class to find out everything we could about a certain historical figure.
So it was upstairs to the reference library I would head in search of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I can still recall the smell of those black, leather-bound tomes.
I’ve always been a bookworm which is why I loved the library. I wasn’t interested in borrowing videos, records or those new-fangled CDs. I was there for the books.
I vividly recall swotting up on Il Duce – Benito Mussolini – and the ensuing pride at my pencil sketch of the Italian dictator.
This was, of course, the mid Eighties – otherwise known, children, as before the internet.
If you wanted to find something out you didn’t type it into a search engine, you went and looked it up in a book.
You see, as much as I enjoy the benefits of the digital age, I have to say I’m still a terrible snob when it comes to the written word.
I’ll defend books, and libraries, to the death and when I read about the closure of these bastions of learning as part of council cutbacks I can’t help but feel incredibly sad and worried for the future.
There’s something about having a library card and visiting a place dedicated to knowledge.
You see, despite what successive governments have been telling us, no-one can convince me that standards of literacy are going up year-on-year.
I think the truth is that so much emphasis these days is placed on computer-based learning that generations of children are growing up without a love or appreciation of books which I think is a crying shame. And, at the risk of sounding like some dinosaur, give me a good book any day of the week – something I can hold in my hand – as opposed to a screen to stare at.
I visit schools to be shown the wonderful LRCs (learning resource centres) filled with lap top computers – and then despair at the fact that I have a bigger library of actual books upstairs at home.
On Sunday morning I sat with my eldest daughter Lois, who is six, and watched open-mouthed as she navigated her way around her school’s website – or ‘virtual learning environment’.
Now I don’t mind her spending a little time on a PC because Lois loves real books. We’ve read to her every night since she was six months old and she’s never without a Meg and Mog story, a Horrid Henry book or something by Julia Donaldson.
She’s also got a complete children’s encyclopedia which she’s now using every week to help her to get more out of the different topics at school.
I know that she’ll grow up with a love of books akin to my own but I wonder how many other children – shoved in front of a telly, wired into a games console or glued to a computer screen for hours on end will be as fortunate.
Yes, I understand full well that the ability to rip stuff off the internet is an essential tool for school children and students these days.
But I fear that this aversion to books is genuinely damaging.
Critics argue that libraries have failed to adapt to changing times and fashions.
They say, with some justification, that learning habits have changed, that books, music and DVDs are cheap to buy and that information is readily available via the worldwide web.
In other words – libraries as we know them, the libraries that I grew up with, are past their sell-by date.
Wrong. Anyone who has ever visited a library and watched a children’s story session knows what a magic libraries can weave.
Anyone who, like me, spent a little time at a library on World Book Night understands the key role these places have – the way in which they can bring people together through literature and the arts.
They may have to evolve further and offer other local authority services but I feel very strongly that libraries are crucial to our communities and that we would be all the poorer without them.