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     Volume 6 Issue 45 | November 23, 2007 |

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Living in the Past

Andrew Morris

I am a child of the twenty-first century. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't actually born in it. More observant readers may have detected from earlier pieces of mine that I am in fact more than seven years old. What I mean is that I enjoy all the technology these times have to offer, the limitless opportunities for interaction. Far from the gloomy dystopean visions you often hear about, of atomised individuals all in their hermetically sealed bubbles, I feel that we've never been more part of a vast network than we are today. I'm addicted to FaceBook (you know it's an addiction when people young enough to be your children are telling you you're on it too much), and regularly email, skype, and chat to people in a whole variety of countries.

On the subject of state-of-the-art hardware, I've collected enough gadgetry in recent years to furnish a Bond film, or at least a Masud Rana one (Don't you think the streets of Old Dhaka would be ideal for a hi-speed chase, in which a rickshaw fitted with laser weaponry and global satellite positioning outwits a BMW driven by some Gulshan mobsters?). I love the fact that these days music can be reduced to strings of 0s and 1s and stored in a machine the size of a credit card. And that from my laptop here in my study I can read, write, purchase and interact with the entire world.

So I'm clearly no Luddite, and I'm glad to be here where I am right now, not back in some golden era in the 60s of my childhood memories. I have no rose-tinted view of those days. Granted, I could do with being a little younger right now, but then who couldn't?

But then again this is not to say that everything is sunny here in 2007. There are other trends, in daily life, (quite apart from wider global issues) which do give cause for concern, especially when it comes to the way we view childhood.

These days in the UK we live in a society which tries to protect children from every conceivable risk. Petrified of litigation (a trend initially dominant in the States but increasingly prevalent back home too), schools for example are no longer prepared to put on outings, lest a single child fall and graze a knee, and the parents then make use of any one of a dozen companies clamouring to help you sue for injury or personal distress. The streets themselves are considered unsafe by parents, which only confines teenagers and children to their homes, where we all know what they get up to at their computers. These are legitimate fears of course: there are accidents due to negligent teachers, and there are abductions. But when these come to set the agenda for the way we spend our childhoods, and place limits on our natural development, you know it's gone too far.

Another worrying phenomenon common both back home and even in certain well-to-do parts of Dhaka is that of childhood obesity, coupled of course with lack of exercise. I am amazed at the size of some of the kids who roll out of 4x4s outside the posher schools here, as their drivers meekly carry their bags behind them. Adults, it seems to me, can choose to be overweight if they so wish, but when children are obese, it suggests wilful irresponsibility on the part of their parents, as well as the food manufacturers who deluge the kids in advertising.

Finally there is the whole debate about the deleterious effects of video games and playstations which I won't bore you with here. At least the Harry Potter phenomenon has restored the balance towards reading and away from full-time technology.

So when discussing the lives of children these days, it's perhaps not so surprising that a common response amongst adults is to sadly shake their heads and indulge in a good bout of nostalgia: a consoling reaction to which all of us are susceptible at times.

Nostalgia, Wikipedia informs, was a term newly coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student. (It's clear that until then 1688 people only looked forward and never hankered for their lost youth). The word is made up of two Greek roots: nostos (returning home), and algos (pain/longing), and originally meant "the pain a sick person feels because he wishes to return to his native land, and fears never to see it again". Originally diagnosed as a sickness, it's now a common-or-garden everyday term. Of course its meaning has shifted: now it's possible to feel nostalgia without ever even leaving the village you've lived in all your life: the land that all of us occasionally long for is that of our infancy. These days a more accurate definition of nostalgia might be “a sentimental yearning for the past”.

It's attractive of course because we can recreate the past in the way we want. Selective memories, unchallengeable by most people as they weren't there with us at the time, can be a soothing antidote to the contingency, the sheer unpredictability of contemporary life. Nostalgia can be a reassuring, but also a dangerous thing. It offers escapism rather than real engagement with the present and the future.

All the same, there may well be times when nostalgia is a well-founded response. As a teenager I rolled my eyes whenever our teachers droned on about how they'd been able to leave their front doors open when they were kids, with no threat from outside. Another favourite topic was how they'd grown up in an era before the advent of TV and were so much better than we were at amusing themselves. But even though these anecdotes were self-serving and tedious, they had more than an element of truth about them.

In a similar vein I was recently amused to come across an anonymous text on the internet which asks some fairly penetrating questions contrasting life in the present day with how things were back then, and made me question my sceptical attitude afresh. Take a look for yourself. This is what it said:

“How did one survive growing up in the 60's 70's, and 80's? We had no seatbelts and no airbags. Our baby prams came in the most gorgeous lead-based varieties of grey. There were no such thing as tamper-proof bottle tops, and opening kitchen cupboards was a breeze, as safety locks were unheard of.

"We could stay out to play for hours as long as we got back before dark, in time for dinner We walked to school, or sometimes we even rode our bike. We had no mobile phones, but we always managed to find each other. How? No one knows..

"Cycling was like a breath of fresh air: no safety helmets, knee pads or elbow pads, with plenty of cardboards between spokes to make it sound like a motorbike. We kept busy collecting bits and pieces so we could build all sort of things, and we were fearless on our bikes even when the brakes failed going downhill. We were showing off how tough we are, by how high we could climb trees and then jumping down. It was great fun.

We lost teeth, broke arms and legs, we got cuts and bruises and bloody noses, nobody complained as we had so much fun, it wasn't anybody's fault, only ours.

"We ate everything in sight, cakes, bread, chocolate, ice cream, sweet sugary drinks, yet, we stayed skinny by fooling around. And if one of us was lucky to find a one-litre coca cola bottle we all had a swig from it and guess what, nobody picked up any germs. When thirsty we only drank tap water, bottled water was still a mystery,

We did not have Play Stations, MP3, Nintendo's, I-Pods, Video games, 99 Cable TV channels, DVD's, Home Cinema, Mobile phones, personal computers, Laptops, Chat-rooms, Internet, etc, But, we had real friends. We played with sticks and stones, played cowboys and Indians, doctors and nurses, hide and seek, soccer games over and over again. We called on friends to come out to play, never rang the doorbell, just went around the back We loved being let loose in the big bad world, without bodyguards.

Those were the days....”

Make your own mind up, but for all the rosiness of the authors' perspectives, and even though in many ways 2007 is a great place to be, I think they might just have a point.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007