SUZANNE HARRINGTON: Stop whinging about your digital fears. It's just the latest step in 'civilisation'.

Is it all going to end in an Instagrammed, available-on-Etsy handcart, asks Suzanne Harrington.

We - that is, you and I - whose teeth are longer than those of Gen Z, who remain uncertain if emojis are a valid form of communication — love to decry the digital decline of civilisation. 

The novelist Will Self writes about “the tyranny of the virtual” in the current edition of Harper’s, examining the “great technical discontinuity of our era”. 

On Tinder, a profile reads, “I’m looking at my phone to find a reason to stop looking at my phone.”

For Gen X and Boomers, looking at our phones is somewhere between tea slurping and public urination, depending where you place yourself along the manners-o-meter. As a rule of thumb, the older we are, the more we find digital life intrusive/narcissistic / infuriating.

We love to catastrophise about how digital life is destroying real life, making us atomised, miserable, friendless drones, locked away in our sad little rooms swiping this way and that.

(We tend not to admit to the sheer pleasure of losing ourselves down the digital rabbit hole, idling hours away).

Instead, we bang on about how rude it is making us. How ill mannered. How thoughtless, uncivilised, barbaric, with our shouty train conversations, our selfies at funerals, our lolz at all the wrong moments.

Checking our phone at the theatre, or seconds after sex. But since when is civilisation linear?

What is politeness anyway — a secret code to show off your privilege (involving fish forks and insider knowledge on how to pronounce Cadogan Square?).

Stop whinging about your digital fears. It's just the latest step in 'civilisation'.

Or is true politeness the art of making your fellows feel at ease?

My money’s on the second one; the first is largely meaningless, despite all the meaning we ascribe to it.

“The more people there are in a nation who need to deal with each other and not cause displeasure, the more politeness there is,” said the philosopher Montesquieu in 1748, ages before Snapchat, when posh people still stank to high heaven and peed in public.

The diarist Samuel Pepys used to crap in a chimney. Bridal bouquets originated to hide the smell of the bride. Even at the highest end of society, nobody had their own fork or cup until the 18th century. The concept of civilisation is constantly evolving.

So when we kick off about kids always being on their phones, about the soullessness of swipe culture, about internet addiction, it’s only because etiquette is still playing catch-up with the digital revolution in which we have all been swept away.

Everything — sex, friendship, shopping, travel, learning — has been hurled into this new space, as we doggy paddle along behind it, trying not to sink.

It will take years before we’ve cracked it. The blundering and hand wringing will morph to normalisation. And then something else will come along, and the next generation will freak out, before they adapt and adjust. It’s what we do.

It’s “civilisation”.

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