*this is not really about Euro ’96 at all. Sorry about that.
When this summer’s European Championship kicks off next month, it will mark twenty years since Euro ’96. Can it really be two decades since I sat in front of the television in my little shorts, glued to the exploits of Gazza, and big David Seaman, and England’s incredible drubbing of the Netherlands?
The answer is yes, of course it is. And surely there could be few things more boring than a twenty-seven year old having a quarter-life crisis indulging in some premature nostalgia for his steadily receding youth. No one wants to hear how I have started to notice that films from the 1990’s look really, well, old (a theme also discussed in this video post by the film critic Mark Kermode). And no one is interested in how terrified I am that the birth dates of fully grown young adults don’t necessarily begin with “nineteen-ninety” anymore. Do you realise there will be people sitting their GCSE’s over the coming months who were mere babies when Cactus Jack faced off against Triple H in a Street Fight at Royal Rumble 2000? (Perhaps not the most historically significant event to take place in that millennium year, but I am speaking of very personal milestones here).
So you need not fear that this is going to be an autobiographical treatise. Rather, these reflections set me on a train of thought about how society itself has changed since I was a boy. For it’s true that since 1996 the world has been dramatically transformed by a technological revolution. Within my lifetime I have seen reference books replaced near wholesale by Google and Wikipedia, cassette tapes and CD’s wiped out by iTunes and Spotify. Video recorders have been rendered obsolete by streaming and catch-up services.
As a result of all this, life has sped up tremendously, and at times it feels as if we have the world at our fingertips. Before, missing a favourite TV show left you with no option other than to wait and hope for a repeat sometime in the future. To read up on a news story or sporting event would mean waiting for the next day’s paper. And if you wanted to make a phone call you had to use the shared house phone in the hallway. But then we were treated to wave after wave of exciting new computer gadgets. Email, Napster, YouTube, Satnav, Myspace – first they delighted us as fun novelties, before steadily muscling out their analogue competitors and becoming part of the furniture of modern life.
Surely the totemic symbol of this generation is the mobile phone. Initially associated in the public imagination only with show offs and self-important businessmen, it is now omnipresent. Whatever embarrassment the British might once have felt about talking loudly in public is something we have long since got over. Witness Dom Jolly’s big phone man from the early noughties, and ask yourself if someone walking down the street shouting to themselves would even raise much of an eyebrow anymore. It’s the mantra of every tedious old curmudgeon that mobiles are destroying the art of social interaction, though I would counter that it’s a veritable godsend to have an excuse not to strike up a conversation with the various bores and psychopaths out there. (I have a suspicion attractive women find this especially useful. Well, all the ones I ever get close to have their head buried in a screen so it would seem to be so…). I honestly struggle to picture what it would have been like in the pre-digital age to take public transport alone, or wait in the pub for a friend, without dipping into my pocket every thirty seconds to scroll aimlessly through various apps and messages.
Of course, there’s a danger of overdoing all this. Things are always changing, and my generation did not invent everything. So people didn’t have the internet before? Big deal, they read magazines instead. And in the pre-Facebook era they would still take photos on holiday or at weddings, it’s just that instead of posting them online they would get them developed to send to family members or pass around at work (so there was no escape in those days either). Every major technological advance in modern history has brought a moral panic of some sort, from television to video games. Mobiles, social media and the rest is just harmless fun that everyone – myself included – enjoys and participates in.
Nevertheless, there are some aspects of this new world that occasionally make me a little unsettled, and I think the change goes deeper than mere fashion. It seems the space around us has to some extent become less important than the online space in which we invest so much of our time and energy. Visit any tourist hotspot in London and you will have to fight your way through a forest of selfie-sticks to get a good view. Events like rock concerts now see people filming on their phones more than they experience the gig in person. Strangers who look odd or different exist only to be snapped and captioned, before being circulated for the mocking delight of one’s own circle of friends.
This might not seem like the gravest concern currently facing humanity, and it isn’t. I merely point out that I’m occasionally jarred by how weird this all is, and though my aforementioned GCSE students might wonder what the hell I am on about – they have never known any different I suppose – I’m sure I can’t be alone in my own cohort in feeling this. We now live in a world where you can find out quite an extraordinary amount about someone who you don’t even know, and they can do the same about you; where we feel a constant nagging urge to interrupt our night out or trip to some peaceful beauty spot in order to take photos and show it off to all our friends on Facebook. The rules of social engagement have not exactly been torn up, but they have certainly undergone a fairly aggressive re-write.
There is also the question of what is the value of all this technology. Yes, there are lots of shiny apps that allow you to do many a splendid thing. But how much of this is mere distraction? While the letters of the great figures of the past are some of our most cherished literary documents, Snapchat literally erases your trivial little message in a matter of seconds. American television serials are often said to be the contemporary equivalent of the great novels of the past. But only the very best of them rise above the level of mere escapism. Sometimes it feels like we are becoming too superficial and losing the capacity for deeper and more serious contemplation, immersing ourselves in a perpetual childish present. And please don’t tell me that no one “has the time” to read a goddamn book while so much of it is spent watching videos of cats falling over and the like.
There are political as well as social implications. The internet has been a great leveler that has given everyone a voice. In a way, that is exactly the problem. Though it may have seemed liberating to break the power of the old media gatekeepers, it has destroyed the business model needed to sustain good quality journalism. In the “information age” lies and propaganda sweep around the world at lightning speed, misleading the credulous and stultifying public discourse. The decline of the hated mainstream media has seen the emergence of dubious “alternative” news sources like ‘The Canary’ and the Russian state controlled ‘RT’, which people can flock to in order to have their prejudices confirmed and to shield themselves from the tiresome burden of hearing from people who don’t share their politics. A democracy cannot function without a shared knowledge base and agreement on basic facts. We are moving beyond differences of political opinion to a state of affairs where one can disappear into one’s own reality, with conspiracism and extremism thriving as a result.
To repeat, this is not supposed to be a rant against the modern world. It’s boring and cliched to moan about “the good old days”, as well as being futile. Unless you are going to live on a farm and grow your own soybeans, you cannot hold back the tide of change. Would I go back to a world of outdoor toilets and black and white TV? You must be joking. Yet that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth at least questioning how this big upheaval in our use of computer technology is affecting our society, rather than just mindlessly embracing every new development in a spirit of technological utopianism.
So really – looking at that rather weak conclusion – I suppose I’m not much clearer on what I think at the end of this than I was at the beginning. It turns out it was just a twenty-seven year old having a quarter life crisis. I can only apologise for wasting your time. Besides, the more things change the more they stay the same. Who wants to bet England will go out on penalties this summer…