A “chat” by any other name

When I was a child phones were chorded, mail was posted, messages were scribbled on paper by the phone. There was no texting to say you were running late, if you wanted to discuss something, you called the person up or saw them in person. It was a much more verbal time.

I remember when my grandfather got a carphone in the late 80s it was very tech forward. It was around the same time my dad bought the first computer for his office. It was an IBM PS/2 and it had a brown screen and amber typeface. A giant grey mountain to a five year old girl, and it came with an equally massive, equally grey printer that carried reams of paper equipped with tear lines and punch-holes for the feeder. It was magnificent.

Sometimes, while my 3G network lags and I scream (for the most part internally) as I watch that little dial whirl I try to remember the patience I once had for mere dial-up.

When I was 8 years old my family moved to Singapore. We were catapulted into a country where communications infrastructure was a definite national priority. So I grew up with a computer in my home before my Australian contemporaries could even imagine such a thing. We got our first home PC when I was 12. It had an external modem and you couldn’t make a phone call while someone was online – which I often was. This was a watershed moment for a child of the transitionary generation, born BPC and now bearing witness in the age Anno Domini Nostri Computer.

Forgive my moment of nostalgia, I do have a point.

I suppose I have a reputation in certain circles for arguing in favour of the protection of young people from themselves online. It’s not the popular view amongst my peers in the media who would argue that self-publication is just that – public. While I appreciate their point and understand the practical impossibility of censoring the online activities of the underaged it grieves me to see the damage that can be wrought by the idiot actions of an imprudent youth.

I recall my own blunders in vivid detail.

Like the time when I was 14 and thought it was a “fun” idea to flirt with a complete stranger in the US via ICQ and then tell him I wasn’t at all interested in his rather lewd romantic overtures to which he saw fit to threaten to send a Trojan Horse to destroy my computer (which thankfully never happened). Or when I selected my first ever personal email address – knockerz@hotmail.com – much to my father’s horror. The internet and online communication had changed the paradigm for what communication was possible and who cared what was “acceptable” behaviour? It was an abstract fantasy world. It wasn’t real, it was online.

While I think there is a savvy amongst kids raised in this environment that my generation never possessed, I still have concerns. Just look at the issues with teenage sexting. It’s just another form of the same unbridled, hormone-drenched sexuality unleashed and amplified by technology, that I myself could have so easily fallen victim to.

And you know what? It’s not just kids.

I remember a few years ago Australian politician Barry O’Farrell accidentally sent a tweet calling then Prime Minister Julia Gillard a “ranga”. It’s happened countless times too other public figures too – and I’m sure many private citizens – sharing info or opinions they’d rather have kept personal.

In facilitating new, ubiquitous and prolific avenues for communication we have fundamentally and unintentionally changed the paradigms of privacy, the paradigms of connectedness and the paradigms of communication and community.

These are some of the most basic human characteristics, and we have just mutated them, altered them irreparably and without any thought.

I can’t tell you how many 20 and 30 somethings I know who are almost afraid of phone calls these days. Why discuss something in person that can be handled in an email chain, or a text message, or a BBM or a Hangout?

Research shows technology can dramatically impact a child’s development on a base level, in both good ways and bad. And no doubt this must also be true of communication tools and methods practiced today.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it is a thing, and I wonder what this will mean for our children and they way they work, the way they socialize, the way they think and learn and move through their worlds. I just wonder.

RACHAEL BOLTON

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