In Europe the summer holiday season is in full swing. I recently spent a week in Palma de Mallorca, a place I have always liked but had not visited for around 20 years and there have, of course, been many changes in that time. All of the holiday resorts have expanded and even the once peaceful, spacious beaches in the north of the island now resemble heaving seal colonies as holiday makers compete for space.
Every little town with a port hosts a marina where summer sailors charter the yacht of their dreams and explore the Balearic Isles with their friends and captive families. Forests of masts stretch out into the bays and coves where once there was nothing but clear blue water teeming with fish. Even the once tranquil Puerto Pollensa now looks like Monaco.
Congestion and modernity are not the only changes I noticed on Mallorca.
I do not spend much time with people with young families these days and so my recent experience, surrounded by many people on their family holiday, has led me to believe that the politics of gender identity/diversity are not the only lethal threat to what we consider “normal” family life.
Technology appears to me to be more immediately and decisively destructive to family relationships, across all social and national boundaries, and observing this dynamic is the most important change since my previous visit to Mallorca.
Maybe I’m getting old and am simply failing to keep up with the rapid pace of social change around me. However, here are a few live examples to support my point.
I think it is wrong for two parents and their teenage daughter to sit in a very pleasant restaurant, in the centre of a delightful city that must be new to them and engage in absolutely no conversation whatsoever for one and a half hours. Instead, my subjects looked and tapped away at their iPhones (7s, I think) the entire time they were seated. Not only did they not speak to each other, there was barely eye contact between them. Remember when family meals used to be sacred, the only time we were all together and could share our day (good and bad), advise each other, laugh and talk to each other properly?
I think it is wrong for a clearly distressed infant, screaming and red-faced in his go-chair (or whatever these monstrous all-terrain comfort buggies are called now) at the Marineland dolphin show, to simply be given a Samsung phablet to keep him amused and shut him up while his parents watch the entertainment (again no eye contact). Remember when we would take our small kids onto our knee to calm them down, reassure them and encourage them to focus on the miracle of dolphins and sea lions showing off?
I think it is wrong for people to go on a bus trip or a cruise around an island, that they may never visit again, to see only what is on the small screen that they hold in front of them. Remember when we used to marvel at unfamiliar landscapes and actually see where we were going instead of being told where we are by Google Maps? Remember when we used to look for unusual animals and birds, on land and at sea, when we were lucky enough to be abroad, and to share these rare sightings with our family and friends? Now we take selfies and spend many mindless hours looking at ourselves standing in front of whatever “attraction” happens to be in the background. The only eye contact we have is with our own image
I think it is wrong for two young children to be ignored by their parents at lunchtime; one five-year-old staring at his screen and one, not yet able to walk or hold a phone, left to roll around the cafe floor (like a demented bear at a zoo) while mum and dad share their Facebook experiences. I think a family visit to the Rafa Nadal museum in the great man’s hometown of Manacor should be better than that, for everyone, don’t you?
We are happily sold the idea that we can stay “connected” for 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Even when we are “away” on holiday we can still “connect” with whomever we want, whenever we want. This means that we no longer need to send postcards, a God-send in my case. It also means that we do not need to be with the people we are actually physically with at any moment because we can continue to be with (“connect with”) other people no matter where they are.
In that sense we live lives in which we are never away, we travel without consciousness and we spend far less time with the people closest to us.
We are often not with our spouses, partners or our kids as they sit across the table from us at a restaurant or beside us on a bus. Instead we can continue to “connect” with other friends, family and business associates, hardly talking to our families at all. We can choose to maintain our virtual connections while slowly destroying the most important relationships right in front of us. And we can ensure that the next generation, our ignored children, will continue to behave in exactly the same way.
A phone screen has two dimensions while a real human being, a person that we are with through choice, is at least three. But we as a species seem to be losing the capacity to build and maintain complex empathetic relationships.
While the politics of gender is creating a more profound and widespread form of introspective individuality, where the first thought is “me”, the foundations of a more intense self-regard have already been laid by the possibility of global but isolated communication through the internet.
In our strange new world “connected” actually means disconnected and alone.
Ronnie Smith is a British writer. At present he is living in Languedoc, France.