Tuesday 30 October 2012

Class and Innovations

Is there a word/phrase for that process where people first complain about technological change, then accept, then embrace it? writer and blogger Lee Jackson 

Middle-class Upwards and Weybridges are not early adopters – they chase fads, not things. And there weren’t all these innovations when they were young: every time a new gadget comes along they act as if it was the first they’d ever encountered. They have to go through a stage of calling the remote control the Herbert and leaving silly messages on answering machines. Also they have to act very puzzled about the whole concept. Video? Why would anyone want to watch a film at home? Email? Why send a document from one computer to another? Talking books? For the blind, or maybe while you’re driving or ironing. (They’re doing it now about Kindles. “People can’t remember books they’ve read on a Kindle so well because Kindle makes it too easy.” Daily Telegraph Jan 2011)

"One of those audiobooks in which some plummy thesp intones a classic novel" Richard Morrison, Times November 11, 2011 (Audiobooks have been around for 25 years and they’re usually read by character actors.)

When the first few got videos, they used them to watch the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby. And they insisted on turning them on for you if you went round to their place. Nobody knew how to programme their video (except me). And they never set the clock, so it blinked all the time. “The pictures are better on radio” must date from 1951. Remember when they insisted black and white TVs were just as good if not better than colour? Colour TVs were something terribly vulgar that Americans had. Eventually they explained that they had “given in” for the sake of the nature programmes. (Now they’re complaining that benefit scroungers all have flat-screen TVs. Possibly because they’re the only kind you can get.)

Although Upwards have had phones since the 1880s, they went on being terrified of expensive phone calls while spending hugely on drink and awful private boarding schools. When telephones first came in, Upwards had one “instrument” in the house in a stuffy cabinet under the stairs. If guests were allowed to use it they had to leave two pennies to cover the cost. (These were households with butlers and maids, and the guests were being fed three-course meals cooked by a chef.) When watching American films of the 50s, they were rather surprised that Americans had wall-mounted phones in their kitchens, with a long flex so that you could have a conversation while doing other things. According to Debrett’s (1980 version) it used to be unacceptable for women to add a phone number to their visiting card.

Gadgets are made of metal and plastic and they are the same for everybody. You can get one encrusted with pink rhinestones, but not an artisanal one made of natural materials. When mobile phones arrived Upwards supposed vaguely that they might be useful for plumbers. Actually they were outraged that mobiles were immediately taken up by plumbers, builders and anyone who saw how useful they were. The Upwards had to fight a rearguard action by getting them banned from railway carriages and joking about people who rang up just to yell “I’m on the train!”

The Evolution of Adoption
1: Affect great puzzlement about what it’s for.
2: Contempt for those who buy/do the thing.
2b. Smugness about not using it.
3: Grudging acceptance.
4: Hysteria about a drawback: RSI, radiation poisoning, complete social breakdown.
5: They buy one but a phone that doesn’t take pictures, or a TV that isn’t flat-screen/colour.
6: They’ve all got one and boast about how many apps they’ve got and how theirs is bigger/more expensive/classier than anybody else’s.
7: They carry on as if they were the first to discover it.
8: They carry on as if they’d invented it.
9. They won’t allow that you (who have been using computers and social media for about 20 years longer than they have) know anything at all.

Once they’ve adopted the technology, Upward etiquette lags behind and they shove their camcorders into their friends’ faces while shrieking with laughter, or email vast numbers of holiday snaps, unfunny internet jokes, virus warnings or chain letters to everyone in their address books, not blinding the email addresses. If they’re not too snobbish to have Facebook accounts, they “like” a page that sends spam to all their friends.

Upwards used to be very shocked if a fellow Upward admitted listening to radio phone-ins. Now it’s Twitter and Facebook. Facebook is funded by the CIA, and Twitter lets the whole world into your living room. Upwards don’t even like to think that there are people living in the UK who aren’t Upwards. Twitter might connect you to people who live in the wrong part of West London. And Twitter was created laterally, not top-down. It’s not run by or for Upwards.

“Children… have been routinely counselled to use FB infrequently and with enormous caution, thus protecting themselves from – to name some of the more obvious traps – obesity, time wasting, stalkers, bullying, invasion of privacy, bitching, hideous embarrassment, isolation, career damage and unwitting complicity in Zuckerberg’s latest schemes for monetisation…” Catherine Bennett on FB’s sudden reinvention as a must-have, or acceptance as a normal part of life. Now it’s the people not on FB, she says, who are pathologised. Aug 12/12.

Are the middleclass parents who won't let kids join Facebook (or the 21st century) for fear of trolls and bullying the same ones who "won't wrap kids in cotton wool"? What happened to "children must learn how to manage risk"? (It’s a bit like not having a house in case you get burgled.)

“I'm not on Facebook" is the new "I don't even own a TV." @rainnwilson

Adding “xxx” to text messages “is a way to be friendly without resorting to dreadful emoticons”. Carol Midgley Times May 9 2012 I bet she went through “those dreadful mobile phones”, “those dreadful text messages” first.

Lower middle class Jen Teale has been using emoticons for years - she used to write PTL! and a smiley face on postits and stick them to the fridge (it stands for “praise the Lord”). And emoticons and acronyms were being used on “primitive” social media in the mid-80s and their origin is probably earlier. Teales moved seamlessly from home movies and holiday slides to camcorders.

And innovations are always dangerous – until they’ve been accepted and are just part of life. Microwave ovens would cook your innards if you left the door open, didn’t use “real heat” so the food wasn’t really cooked, and got as hot as a nuclear reactor (thanks to Giles Coren). TVs were bad for your eyes and killed conversation. Upwards put them in a special room (they had one to spare), and watched them from a great distance with all other light sources turned off. The game was played out again with computers: radiation, RSI, protective lead garments for pregnant women… And mobile phones give you “texter’s thumb”.

Try Googling “we finally gave in and got a”: laptop, taxi, tanning bed, gas powered mower, fake Christmas tree.

When travelling, I often bump into an elderly and aristocratic couple who want to make it quite clear that they are slumming by using the same mode of transport as ordinary people (and a cheap mode at that). They have bitter public disputes about how to use lifts or read departure boards. You meet them in self-service restaurants too, pretending to be baffled by the procedure (“You get the eating irons, Freddie.”) They are always sending one of their party off to check the departure time, bag a table, go on to John Lewis etc etc. Before mobiles, this meant a 75% risk that they’d never find each other again. But maybe that was the point: you’d either lose Araminta, or have an excuse for a lovely prolonged row in which you accused her of waiting by the wrong pillar.

“My doctor told me to drink decaffeinated tea but I can only get horrible bags. Can I get proper leaf tea that’s decaffeinated?” Letter to Times

Upwards were never going to use teabags or eat flavoured yoghourt. Ahem… Here are some innovations they used to ban – or at least hedge around with prohibitions – and now accept:

Teabags: they contained the sweepings of the factory floor.

Supermarkets: the muzak sent you into a trance and you bought more than you needed and it feels like stealing. Supermarkets were American, and so ipso facto common. Then they came round to Sainsbury’s and Waitrose because you can drive straight there and buy everything you need surrounded by like-minded people and don’t have to walk along streets and go to corner shops and mingle. They told you to shop at Sainsbury’s rather than corner shops “because it’s cheaper”. But now they’re against supermarkets again and are supporting corner shops (but they have to be delis run by people like them, not Costcutters).

Central heating: American. Dries out your nasal passages.
Ariel (bio washing powders): Cause a skin rash.
Hula hoops (the toy, not the snack): Cause slipped discs.
Miniskirts: Cause cystitis and chapped thighs.
Mobile phones/bras/deodorants: Give you cancer.
Platform shoes: Cause twisted ankles.
Sony walkmans: Cause road accidents (now it’s mobiles and soon it will be in-car television).

The Tellytubbies: Will encourage our children to speak badly. (The great Tellytubby flap is entirely forgotten and the kids are all right. Now we’re whingeing about In the Night Garden.)

The Internet: Causes sex addiction. Or just Internet addiction.

Twitter and Facebook: Encourage people to make nonexistent “friends” with thousands of people, or follow stupid “celebrities”. It will mean the death of privacy! Both Twitter and Facebook give you instant access to everybody in the world. (This one is still current.)

The Twist (it was a dance, me lud): Causes slipped discs.
Convenience food: It’s OK now you can get it at M&S.

Comics: Will stop children learning to read (and you earned a lot of brownie points if you didn’t let your children read them). Now it’s texting that will stop your children learning to spell.

Fruit-flavoured yoghourt (only plain was allowed): When yoghourt came in Upwards refused to put sugar on it. But they believed magical claims about it eg that it helps you live to 100.

And these are the people who are always complaining that the media whips up utterly unnecessary panics about paedophilia, swine flu, foot and mouth… Some (a dwindling band) still refuse to use any machine invented after 1960. More about technology refuseniks here.

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