Friday, 1 May 2020

Reasons to be cheerful

I am not always known for my sunny optimism, but today, in honour of the Day of DH 2020, I have decided to be cheerful. So cheerful indeed that I have decided to blog again after a very long absence.

Today, as we DHers tweet each other about what we are up to, there will, necessarily, be variations on quite a narrow theme. I am at home. I am using digital tech to work. Yup just like millions of other people.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent past at the moment. I’m writing a book about the early period of cyberspace from about 1985-2001. So I can’t help feeling grateful that the lockdown didn’t happen then. How on earth would be have worked from home ? It’s easy to forget how much has changed, but when I reflect on my own experience it’s quite sobering.

I didn’t have an email account until 1995 when I joined an electronic publishing firm after my PhD.  (Well apparently I could have had, but the university didn’t think to tell me about it. I was a humanities student, why would I need email after all? That in itself is instructive) Email was, at the time, very much associated with work, but even if I’d had an email account, I didn’t have an internet connection at home until 1996. My husband muttered darkly at the time that I might regret it, and sometimes I think he was right, but mostly I remain grateful for that connectivity, now especially. I didn’t use the web until 1995 either. But then again, nobody else did until two years before that, because it didn’t exist.

I felt no need for the internet as a student (either undergraduate or postgraduate) or for email. We used to write notes to each other, or just go round to visit if we wanted company. Nobody had a mobile phone. It all seems extraordinarily remote now. But I do remember how incredibly lonely doing a humanities PhD was then, when working at home really was working at home. On your own. With no way to connect to anyone else unless you went to the (oh the excitement) library and waited in the tearoom just in case one of your friends happened along. Usually they didn’t.

Of course there were UseNet Groups and BBSs in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, and there was ARPANET for academic techies and the military. Hey, I even joined an email list in 1995 too (Leeds United Football Club, since you ask), regarding myself,
as a result, as a fully fledged citizen of cyberspace. It felt cool and edgy in a way that is impossible now to explain- though I am trying to do so in the book. But, even by the late 1990s the numbers of virtual communitarians was tiny as compared to the general population. The internet was not even open to commercial traffic until 1990. It is all, actually, very recent, and yet it all seems so far away.

So I know that many of us feel lonely now, and I know many of us miss social contact. Many of us miss being able to go out to work or indeed the library. But digital technology and the internet has made such a massive difference to our ability to connect with each other, even in physical lockdown. Just a few decades ago, loneliness would have been far, far worse. However much I sometimes grump about the intrusion of technology into home live, I do feel hugely grateful that as a result of that same technology I can still work effectively, and connect to my friends and colleagues all over the world. Just one reason to be cheerful on the Day of DH.