Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: I’ve seen the light and am not so much of a digital dissenter

Isambard Kingdom Brunel: a wise man who would have brooked no nonsense about Ctrl+Alt+Del

Isambard Kingdom Brunel: a wise man who would have brooked no nonsense about Ctrl+Alt+Del - Credit: Archant

An article in this newspaper last week stated that 53% of Suffolk’s over-65s are now online.

In Essex, the figure for this age group is only slightly lower at 47%, whilst the average for England stands at 39%. It reminded me that it was about this time a decade ago that I finally surrendered and bought a computer. An editor at the national broadsheet for whom I’d been a contributor throughout the 1990s was so incredulous at my lack of technology that in 1999 I was commissioned to write an article explaining how exactly I managed to survive within the modern media.

I wrote a long and sturdy defence of my luddism. They billed me as “The Last Unwired Man On Earth.” Back then, I still posted or faxed my (typed) work to the paper. After the Millennium had dawned, only myself and the paper’s respected theatre reviewer remained off-line. For we two, they still kept a fax machine handy. I was even allowed, sometimes, to telephone my pieces to the copy-takers – tetchy grammarians who queried my every word.

Eventually, however, in the autumn of 2003 I realised that the game was up and succumbed to the digital revolution. I never had any formal training. I just bought a second-hand laptop, switched it on and blundered in. Whenever I got into trouble, which was often, I either phoned a friend or asked someone in the pub.

Being the impatient chap I am, I soon developed a smouldering hatred for the people who invented and manufactured computers. The things were forever crashing or freezing up on me. In the dark dial-up days, before broadband, www stood for the World Wide Wait. You could spend hours trying to sort out problems. The hated computer was forever telling me that I’d performed an “illegal operation” or committed a “fatal error” and that now “Windows is closing down”. I would snarl “Windows ARE closing down, you effing moron!” In such early days, whenever I was defeated by it, I’d stomp off to the pub after work in a bleak and murderous rage.

I began, as soon as I learned how, keeping an occasional online public diary of my tribulations with computers. In it, I once gave a local builder my Computer User of the Year Award. This was after he lost his temper and, in a blaze of epithets, lobbed his entire unit ? screen, keyboard and hard drive ? out of a third floor window, where it smashed to pieces, far below on the patio.

Speaking to a rather more philosophical friend, a Suffolk lad as it happens, he offered me this: “Martin,” he said, “if you’d gone up to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and told him you’d invented a new communication system which you wanted the world to adopt, his first question to you would have been ‘Does it work?’ Then, if you’d replied to him ‘Well, sort of – but we’re still ironing a few of the bugs out...’ he wouldn’t have let you get any further; he’d have just shown you the door and told you to come back when it WAS working properly.”

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I resented the very notion that a team of nerds somewhere in Silicon Valley had managed to sell the entire world – everyone from international banks to rock stars – a system which cost a shipload of money, consumed vast acres of everyone’s time and then didn’t even work properly! I raged impotently at the situation, satirised it viciously at every turn and laughed uproariously when I learned that, somewhere, just over 40% of users had, at one time or another, actually punched their computer screens in frustration. This war continued for two years, until I refined my skills, bought a better laptop and began to develop another point of view.

The communication revolution, which I now realise is still only beginning, is not evil as such, even though it might appear at times to be harbouring evil and evil-doers.

For all their annoying air-headed ubiquity, digital social media such as Facebook and Twitter have become successful because, quite apart from anything else, they provide an antidote of sorts to the desperate solitude which is one of the scourges of modern life. And while it’s true that the internet has spawned its own bullies, it’s also allowed people who were previously shackled by shyness to gently blossom online.

There are forums and sites of interest – especially for music fans and bibliophiles – which have brought great joy to participants. Then there is the extraordinary Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia run and contributed to by volunteers. Wikipedia is such a great institution that on rare occasions I’ve been moved to donate money to their funding appeals.

That round about 50% of our more silvery citizens have now gained access to online facilities may be a godsend, because it will help diminish the well of loneliness which has always blighted old age.

Best of all, however, is the internet’s speed of communication and the failure of the world’s larger powers to completely control it. In the recent case of Syria, for example, the world seemed to be voting for diplomacy over rockets and made its views plain. Ironically, the internet revolution has been like a positive version of the feared atomic bomb. It’s already exploded and its cloud has gone up. Only recently, however, has it really begun to spread out.