Driving in darkness and drizzle on a cool autumn evening, it would have been easy to have missed the cafe. Without a billboard announcing a meal package for £12, there would have been an assumption that turning from the road would bring one only to a garden centre, and who would want to be looking at plants on a damp night in October?
The welcome was warm, the server brought tortilla chips and salsa while the meals were being prepared. Steak pie, mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy – proper food; the menu included much that was similar.
At the next table, a group of four people shared reminiscences of journeys, memories of events. One man, who had seemed from a military background, talked of Royal Air Force bases and flights. It wasn’t about wars or conflict, but of landings in unlikely places.
The conversation would have been considerably more interesting than that at our table. Three smartphones occupied the attention of their owners. Emails were being checked, messages were being returned, news was being read, football games were being followed; one person even sat trying to write. The capacity to communicate in the most sophisticated of ways has led to a decline in the ability to communicate in the most basic of ways.
The smartphone allows free and immediate communication with friends around the world, it allows instant access to unimaginable amounts of knowledge, it allows an infinite availability of entertainment; it means we need never be alone, but it has brought losses with it.
The greatest loss seems the loss of our ability to hold conversations. A vocabulary filled with textspeak and emoticons has superseded one with which we used once to sit and talk to our friends. Suggestions that people consider a “detox”, that they put aside their phones and break the attachment, fall on deaf ears. Why would people consider a step they felt was retrograde?
In a generation’s time, will it be possible to pull into a cafe and eavesdrop a conversation, or will the devices have become so sophisticated that thoughts alone will be sufficient to communicate through the ether, and will the speaking of words have become redundant?
No matter the degree of sophistication, electronic communication lacks the subtlety of face to face chats. Voices, tones, inflections, smiles, grimaces, eyebrows raised, scowls, arms folded, hands open; all the vast number of non-verbal cues add an undefinable quality to the conversations where we sit at a table with someone.
The people at the next table needed nothing electronic to communicate, they might be baffled by those of us who needed devices.