x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

If the digital world passes you by, it's time to start tweeting

The world of communication technology keeps advancing. But do we really have to keep up with it?

I have a confession to make. I make use of some aspects of modern technology in my life, like the PC on which I am writing this column. But I've never been particularly keen on every manifestation of technology.

I learn what appears to be of immediate use to me. I don't bother to keep up with the latest innovations.

It took me ages to learn how to cut-and-paste text, for instance, rather than painstakingly copying sentences and paragraphs, word by word, and to get used to sending text messages.

I've never been tempted to rush out and buy the latest high-tech product to hit the market. My system works fine the way it is. So why bother with the latest gadgets?

In some areas, I'm convinced that the use of modern technology can create only complications. Consider the latest cars, which are heavily computerised to simplify the task of the driver. But what on Earth does one do if the computer has a malfunction? You can't really dive under the bonnet and sort the problem out any more. No more changing spark plugs or plugging in a new water pump. Now we need a team of technicians and a tow truck.

This sort of dependence on machines means that individuals need to learn less themselves - and, consequently, are helpless when anything goes wrong. When my PC has a minor fault, it drives me to agitated fury.

I have, though, gradually come to the conclusion that perhaps the world is leaving me behind. The other day, a proud young father told me that his daughter, not yet 3 years old, already knows how to boot up a computer and to navigate to her favourite games. Perhaps I shouldn't have been amazed, but I was. She'll probably be creating her first mobile phone app before she's reached her teens at this rate.

The appearance of the latest gadgets doesn't completely pass me by. I read about them, wonder whether they are really of any value and then tend to forget about them, perhaps smiling a little as I hear others rave about how useful they can be. One example is those programmes that, once downloaded on to a mobile phone, allow people to communicate instantly, at little or no cost, sharing pictures and words with a whole group of people at the same time. I've been quietly amused for ages by the way in which my wife and her siblings spend so much time communicating in this manner, across three countries.

Rather than this immediate form of connecting, I generally prefer to write a long letter, which I can reread and amend to my heart's content before it's sent - though I have dropped paper, envelopes and stamps in favour of emails, where possible. Postal services aren't quite what they used to be and immediacy is often essential in correspondence.

My confession is that I've finally signed up to one of these chat programmes. I won't mention the name of the app; I'm not in the habit of using this column to give free advertising. But I thought that I could, at least, sing the technology's praises.

When I'm travelling, this new app allows me to communicate with family and prevents large phone bills. And unlike the phone the app lets us share the occasional picture. I could do all this communicating by ordinary SMS text message, but this seemed to offer more.

To my amazement, once the app had sorted through the address book on my phone I found that there were all sorts of people, from all walks of life, who were already signed up. I haven't linked to any of them, but maybe I will.

They include housewives, government officials, captains of industry and almost-forgotten friends who have moved away and whom I'm unlikely to telephone.

Many definitely aren't the kind of people who would spend their time on idle chitchat. I suspect that they have acquired the facility to communicate in this way because it is of some real practical value. And unlike the more public social media, communications can be kept private, allowing users to determine the recipients of any messages.

Perhaps there is something in this fad for instant free, or low-cost, private communications after all. Even if I don't use it much, at least I can try to convince myself that, as the world of technology continues to move ahead, I'm not becoming a total technology dinosaur, left completely stranded in the past and pushed aside by a 3-year-old and a tablet.

Now, what was that Twitter handle I gave myself nine months ago and have nearly forgotten?


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture