I have every reason to be very grateful indeed for the twenty-first century’s enhanced connectivity: with two children on the other side of the world, regular contact is through WhatsApp and Skype calls and although I have some regrets that there will not be bundles of letters for our descendants to discover and cherish, I am realistic enough to know that with the frenetic pace of life today, regular letter writing is, sadly, a thing of the past and it is necessary to be content with occasional postcards as the only evidence of hand-written communication.
But it is not just in the maintaining of all-important family and other relationships that our interconnectedness brings benefits. It is now difficult to recall just how much of the day-to-day stuff of life used to happen at such a leisurely pace: bills received by post and paid by writing out cheques and returning them by post; official enquiries sent off through the post and replies still awaited some weeks later – not knowing when or whether the original requests had made it to their destinations; exchanges between colleagues, even within the same building, that were sent on paper and carried by clerical messengers whose task was largely to run hither and thither in lieu of face-to-face meetings. How much more straightforward and quicker all these things, and many more, have become with the use of the internet, email, mobile phones and instant messaging. I have reconnected via facebook with old friends from childhood and from university days and have marvelled at the discovery of ‘friends of friends’ who are themselves linked via social media – people whom I would never have expected to be connected turn out to be so, either directly or only at one remove from each other. I have also managed to trace missing distant relatives using online searches and have amassed a huge database of my children’s ancestry – begun by trawling through the records of local studies libraries but greatly enhanced by internet-based genealogical tools, with new data now added month by month and most of it without leaving home. So I would be devastated to lose this new connectivity, but has it come at a price and do we assume that because we are now all part of a worldwide web of linkages, what happens around us is similarly joined up?
The more I hear about national and global circumstances, the more convinced I am that many problems result from a lack of joined-up thinking and processes, and I find it frustrating that those in positions of power and who have the potential to bring about change do not seem to recognise that failures of communication – in an age of unprecedented mass communication – are often significant contributors to large problems. If, as has been claimed, we cannot have meaningful relationships with more than a maximum of 100 to 150 other individuals, how can it be either efficient or cost-effective to construct ever larger national and global organisations in which the right hand loses touch with what the left hand is doing? We may be better connected than ever but are we actually communicating much less effectively at many levels – don’t we need to concentrate more on something else derived from the same root word, and to nurture community, whether that is by creating smaller and effective networks within large organisations, by devolving decision-making to the places where those decisions are to be implemented or by setting up local initiatives to tackle what have been identified as national problems? With increased connectivity there has arisen a parallel phenomenon: increased isolation and loneliness. But when we look at the local picture rather than trying to start with the global or national, there are opportunities for effective action for everyone, beginning right where we all are. Just because a group has as its primary function the sharing of a common interest in history, singing, art or food doesn’t mean that it cannot also function effectively as a way of including the isolated, feeding the need for human contact and lifting the depression of the lonely – perhaps it just needs some more joined-up thinking?