Category Archives: Writing

Internet access – it’s all a load of fuss about nothing

Be honest, which household gadget could you live without? Would there be any impact upon your day to day life if you had no laptop? What about your phone or your vacuum cleaner?

When my two friends and I were choosing a flat to live in just after university, having a washing machine wasn’t one of the priorities. ‘The launderette’s just round the corner,’ we reasoned, when weeks later we were hand washing most of our clothes in the bathroom sink. The lady who ran the launderette was rather strict and we were a bit scared of her; she advised us on drying times for different clothing types and that was all a bit much.  ‘Hand washing saves money and water, too,’ we admirably reasoned.

Whatever their gadget of choice, I’m fairly sure that most people I know would rather lose quite a few household mod cons than lose their internet connection.  To work, communicate, find out information and keep ourselves entertained most of us rely on the internet on a daily basis.

Even the Lords are talking about its importance. A communications committee has raised concerns that the government’s obsession with rolling out speedy broadband overlooks those parts of the country which have little or no coverage at all.

Well, if you ask Ha-Joon Chang, the author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, those people in remote parts of Cumbria who each evening struggle to stream yesterday’s episode of Eastenders in a valiant attempt to keep in touch with what’s happening in the outside world don’t have it that bad after all.

I’m reading Chang’s book at the moment and really like the way that he challenges aspects of free-market capitalism which we don’t really question that much. I don’t always agree with him, but it’s refreshing to read a viewpoint which strays from the norm.

One of his chapters is: ‘The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has’.

He argues, first of all, that the development of internet-based communications hasn’t had as much impact on humankind as the invention of the telegram did. Chang uses the example of sending a 300 word message across the Atlantic. Sending a fax would take 10 seconds and an email two seconds. The invention of the telegraph, on the other hand, reduced the travel time of a message from the steamship’s best attempt, two weeks, to just eight minutes.

More interesting though, and linking to my (brilliant) anecdote about washing machines, is the social change which Chang attributes to the invention of the washing machine.

The time saved thanks to washing machines, according to Chang, has transformed the way that women live by enabling them to enter the labour market (as opposed to washing and ironing clothes by hand and the other lengthy domestic chores due to the lack of electrical appliances). It also meant that those women who were working were increasingly employed in non-domestic roles.

Brilliantly, this: ‘has definitely raised the status of women at home and in society, thus also reducing preference for male children and increasing investment in female education.’

Even better: ‘Even those educated women who choose to stay at home with their children [now] have higher status in the home, as they can make credible threats that they can support themselves should they choose to leave their partners.’

Leaving to one side the, ahem, blissful and limited family unit drawn here, and the fairly patronising overtones about the ‘status’ of women, is Chang making a valid point?

I do like this challenge to the presumed idea that the internet is the greatest progression that society has ever made. But I’m slightly bristling at the argument which places the realm of washing clothes so firmly with women, and that simplifies complex interpersonal processes such as divorce or workplace equality into such a linear process.

On an individual (and possibly selfish) level I’d rather be able to stream a documentary whilst emailing a friend than dry and iron my clothes in super-quick time. But, do we owe more to other technological inventions than we think?

No doubt, inventions such as the washing machine changed the way we all live. But, is there more to come from the telecommunications revolution in the future? And what about the social change which the internet has already brought about?

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Away…But Not For Too Long

Things are going to be a bit quiet on this blog for the time being because all of the activity is moving across to my travel blog. Please have a look to see what we have been up to on our trip, and check back here soon for new articles when we return in April.

Tweets/Comment/News: Are they interchangeable?

In Sunday’s Observer main section, Victoria Coren’s piece on the, as she phrased it, ‘Colegate’ saga (Cheryl Cole no longer being on X-Factor, etc), made a sideways swipe at a phenomenon which seems to grow week on week but which few question. Discussing the news which certainly filled all of our conversations in the office, on the phone, even over dinner last week, she writes:

‘One newspaper quoted a tweet from “fan” Nigel Stoneman (following the worrying new media trend for reporting public opinion based on random internet posts, which I’m not sure is entirely scientific), asking: “Am I the only one who has twigged that the whole Cole X Factor carry-on is one massive PR stunt?”‘

It might not be entirely ‘scientific’, as Cohen comments, but some may argue it is more democratic. No more do we minions need to listen just to the Oxbridge snobs (?!) which our country’s key papers choose as mouthpieces for the nation. By following a hash for a few hours it’s pretty easy to glean a sense of ‘What the nation [of Twitter users] is thinking’ without having to leave one’s desk.

Guilty of changing 'news'?

Guilty of changing 'news'?

However, I wonder if this so-called litmus-test really works, or if it actually makes for interesting comment at all? When browsing a newspaper or magazine becomes more of a run-down of what your current favorite/former favorite/new favorite celebrity/politician/sports star/journalist (it becomes self-referential!) [delete as appropriate] thinks is that really particularly interesting? Why pick up a paper at all?

An example could be Tanya Gold’s piece from this week’s Stylist. Point taken, I most definitely agree with her argument. But when the article launches head-first into a reference to a twitter conversation, before quoting it excessively in upper case in the second sentence, it doesn’t make for the smoothest of reading!

I’m not trying to say that we should never hear references to social media in our old-fashioned media; things have changed from the 90s and will never be the same again. Now we are all able to shape our own slice of cyberspace. But there has to be some vetting system when it comes to the proportion of an article devoted to a momentary social media storm (in a teacup); do the nutter opinions really matter as much some commentators give credit for?

What’s on your bookshelf?

Finishing reading a book which you have loved every minute of is a bitter-sweet moment. You know that you will never again experience reading it for the first time, no matter how many times you return to re-read in future.

I suppose one of the best ways of countering this is by staying faithful to a list of favourite authors to whose books you immediately approach when visiting a bookshop. You can be (almost) sure that their other work will give you something new to think about, whilst picking up similar pleasurable (if that’s the best word for it) threads as their other writing. Whilst browsing my bookshelf for the next book to begin, it really hit me that I am incredibly guilty of this habit.

Not only does my collection feature groups of books by the same authors, Barnes, Carter, Darrieussecq, Kingsolver, Orwell, Woolf (yes, in alphabetical order) I realised that these groups of books are, for the most part, written by women.

As we fast approach the June announcement of the Orange prize for Fiction is there an especial resonance to considering the sex of the authors we generally read?

The shortlist was announced just last week and a (female) friend noted that the Orange prize winners tend to follow similar themes, in line with their ‘feminine’ authors and (perhaps more dangerously) audience.

So, it has to be asked, does the Orange prize really cater only for women, following a series of themes only of interest to half of the species? What’s more, do reading habits follow gender lines overall? Although it looks like I’ve run out of time to finish the shortlist, perhaps it’s something to bear in mind when we begin this year’s winner?