There was a clerihew which once won a New Statesman competition – maybe 25 years ago, but it’s stuck in my brain – which went ‘Ivan Ilich/Lives in a vilich/And gets hoity-toity/About modern sosoity’. Ilich was the author of the best book with the worst title: ‘Tools For Conviviality’. I expect, in hindsight, it was the translator’s fault. Its argument was that technological things need not be de facto bad (this was in a time when Luddism, if there is such a word, was in the ascendant) – that to be anti-technology was silly, since there were some ‘tools’ – the telephone, for instance – which were useful, whilst others, like the nuclear bomb, were not ‘convivial’ at all.
Now whether Ilich would still consider the telephone convivial is open to question, since there is an argument that it rules rather is ruled by the owner. Own a mobile, and you have to admit to where you are, or you risk worrying the person phoning you – you have to be contactable, or you may cause distress or even offence. This is true of parents and children, especially. If a child, let’s say a teenager, does not return your calls, you worry, because technology had made it easy. But when I was a teenager, I couldn’t phone my parents, or, more pertinently, I wasn’t expected to. In fact, weeks might have passed without contact. No alarm was raised. It was the way things were.
I am actually mildly lucky in this respect. I live in that well-known curse, ‘a dip’. My mobile phone receives no signal in my home. It is only usable when I am up the hill, turn left, and go 200 yards. Being available, at least to text messages, is something I don’t have to worry about. And few people seem to recall that I have a landline.
Are computers convivial? I think I have the answer to that one. Since my ISP misbehaved this morning, and a succession of helpline gurus gave me conflicting advice as to what to do (uninstal, instal, don’t instal, the full range), and since the last one said ‘you mustn’t uninstal’ after I had actually done just that, I’ve lost a cache of perhaps 800 emails. Some completely trivial, doubtless, some important to me, some saved elsewhere, some not saved at all. It is good that I do not have the hoard any more. It is bad that I do not have the hoard any more. It is a waste of time even thinking about what I have lost, because cyberspace has swallowed, masticated and eliminated the whole bang shoot. Was that convivial? Was that being cruel to be kind? ‘I think I have the answer to that one’, did I say? I don’t have the answer at all. It has taken me two and a half hours to reach the convivial nirvana of an empty in-box. Why don’t I feel happy?