I am Not a Digital Babe


When I was a little girl in the early 1950’s, we didn’t even have a telephone. My family lived in Montevideo, Uruguay where people had to put their name down on the list and wait several years for a phone number. We didn’t have a number.

When I was three I travelled to Buenos Aires with my mother to stay with my five ancient great aunts who lived in a big old house. They had a telephone that was fixed to the wall with a separate earpiece attached by a ratty brown cable. I was warned never, ever to touch it.

One morning, when I was sure everyone was busy making lunch, I crept into the inner courtyard, pulled up a chair so I could reach the earpiece and very carefully took it out of its cradle. To my horror a sharp female voice demanded, “Número por favor!” “Number Please!” I was petrified. “Número por favor! Que número quiere?” I leapt off the chair, leaving the earpiece dangling, reverberating with the increasingly impatient voice of the telephone exchange operator and fled into the dark sitting room. I hid, crouching under a small table draped with a heavy chenille cloth that almost touched the floor and waited for the doorbell to ring. I was certain that armed policemen were going to march in and drag me off to jail for daring to mess with the telephone system. I was still there, panicking and in tears, when my mother eventually found me.


This morning I was woken by a call on my mobile, I chatted to my friend in bed for a while, continued our conversation with headphones while I made breakfast, read an online newspaper on my laptop, watched a real life smartphone film of white policemen murdering a black man on Facebook and googled yoga classes for my housemate on my laptop. He has a hole in his brain where a tumour once lived, leaving him able to write but not read, so he maintains vicarious relationships with a series of male and female online avatars who read things for him. We discussed a novel he plans to write about these avatars taking on independent lives. A young friend arrived to start planning a website he’s going to build for me. We checked out various artist’s websites that might be a good reference point for mine and I showed him a trailer of a virtual reality theatre piece I had seen while dragging photographs from my photo archive onto my desktop to use later … It was still only 10am and although I don’t know what an algorithm is, I am no longer hiding under the table.

I have a hacker friend and by watching him I learnt that when you get stuck, someone out there will help you. It sounds obvious but use your search engine instead of shouting at the screen because I promise, an individual in some forum somewhere will tell you how to scan with your new printer, insert pictures into a document or anything else that baffles you. If like me, you’re a person of a certain age, you’re probably skeptical. Trust me. I have seen the finest hackers and technologically proficient teenagers type in the question I have just asked them into a search engine. Any fool can do that. So now I do it too.

That means I could learn to build my own website. The young friend who is going to build it for me doesn’t know how to do it either, but he’s confident he can find out and the only difference is that he wants to do it and I don’t. It would take me a lot longer than it’s going to take Roman (put link to Website here), but I could do it. I am going to upload all my films so anybody can watch them.

So I survive in this new interconnected world, but a lot of water flowed under the bridge in between me weeping under my great aunt’s table and these days. There were Bakelite telephones, then the advent of the answerphone, pens and paper and manual and electric typewriters. We went to libraries and flipped through filing cards to find what we wanted; we looked things up in books or asked people questions face to face. We made arrangements and mostly kept them. We wrote long letters to each other. Now that really was a lovely thing and I miss it. The only proper letters I get these days are from two friends in jail.

During this middle period, people like me were blissfully ignorant, imagining that computers were like Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey – great big machines that couldn’t move.

But there were others who were dreaming of creating a new virtual world.

A couple of years ago while I was researching a hacking movie I had a Skype conversation with Anselm Hook, one of the early pioneers: “There were only four or five thousand of us, we were the internet, and we were thinking about stuff like, ‘umm shall we allow advertising?’ At that time, the idea that the Internet could become an ugly Google place where Kim Kardashian, the top Forty and advertisements for toothpaste could proliferate would have horrified us. The real net is totally free. It was a hippy dream; we thought we were pushing at the psychological frontier of cyber-oness.”

There were also people like James Stevens in Hackney who were setting up free broadband networks for their neighbourhoods using Pringle cans. When I researched those who hang around in the deep waters of the Darknet, not just the tiny little bit of it that most of us use, it surprised me that within this extraordinarily, abstract, expansive, virtual reality space there is also a vibrant low-tech, sort of potting shed culture. These are physical spaces for making things and picking locks and welding circuit boards and inventing lovely pointless gadgets that make individuated weird sounds when different people walk past them or switch off all televisions in the neighbourhood while turning on your toaster.

There is other stuff down there too. If you take a fibre optic cable and slice it open, you’ll find a massive amount of pornography including snuff movies and child pornography, government spying, mafia stuff and a Black Market for everything, guns, drugs, people, organs. There are tutorials in making bombs and the best ways to kill people – although there’s probably some truth in the saying that all the girls in the dark web are boys and all the children are FBI agents. You can get exact copies of exam papers, anonymous financing, anonymous tipping and information exchanges, information on computer security/anonymity, and also download all the books, music, movies you can imagine. The web is the most beautiful archive.

But that was still to come and I was pretty much still crouching under the table. In 1990 when the first web page was posted on the Internet and the dreamers were creating a new virtual world for us, I was making films at the BBC Elstree studios for Paul Watson. I was put under pressure to use a computer to write up my research and when I failed to get my head around it straight away I picked up my large office chair and hurled it across the room in a rage. It smashed into the connecting door between my boss’s office and the one I shared with another director. The door shuddered. Paul emerged laughing; luckily he loved a tantrum.

At that time my son was a young freelance photographer and he lugged around a mobile phone the size of a large brick and a great lump of a charger that he plugged in as soon as he arrived anywhere. I scoffed, convinced it would never catch on. But I bought a second hand Amstrad desktop that I used at home as a glorified typewriter with some grey floppy discs.

In 1993 a group, including Tim Berners Lee, agreed to make the underlying code for the Web royalty-free to everybody in the world forever.

Soon after that I was commuting from London to BBC Bristol when they introduced an early email system. The trouble was that the only people we knew who had email addresses were people in our own open plan office. Researchers and P.A’s who could see each other’s desks would email: “Shall we go for lunch?” I didn’t understand why they didn’t just speak to each other, so I laughed at them too, and, like the mobile phone, I was absolutely sure it would never catch on.

I paid for a Pipex internet dial up connection around 1998. If the phone line was free you could log on, there’d be an agitated set of beeps and finally a connection. It cost the same as a phone call and tied up the phone line so you’d write all your emails, log on and send them all at once. My brother told me about Ask Jeeves and Yahoo and explained that you could actually look things up! I gradually started using search engines too.

Around then I was working with American composer John Adams on a film version of his opera The Death of Klinghoffer. He was in Berkeley, California and I was in London but we were able to email back and forth about creative ideas and potential cuts to the score and ideas for cast and musicians very quickly. I finally began to get it… this was wonderful. We couldn’t yet send music though, so audition mini-tapes were couriered across the Atlantic.

Anyway, you get the picture, I eventually crawled out from under the table.

Some things still frighten me. I have a Post-it note scrawled with black sharpie stuck over the webcam on my laptop because my hacker friend advised me it was a good idea. I believed him because I know a few criminals and a couple of them explained how their friend stalks people he wants to rob through their laptops. Once he sees his targets are not at home he simply goes over and helps himself.

These days I use screenwriting programmes for scripts (although I often write them in Word first to get a flow going) and all my documents are organized in folders that make sense to me. I have embraced lots of other useful stuff like dropbox, vimeo and WeTransfer. I initially joined Facebook in order to stay in touch with certain people who change their phone numbers all the time. I don’t put personal information up there because I don’t know that many of my one and a half thousand so-called friends. Although people complain about Facebook snooping to build up a profile in order to shape your news feed, I am grateful that I don’t get too many videos of cats doing amusing things or pictures of what people had for breakfast. And glad that FB finally realized that although I am over sixty I don’t have an enormously fat tummy and I’m not worried about my wrinkles. I get lots of political suggestions of what to read and watch and I post that stuff too.

I downloaded Snapchat for researching scripts about teenagers but I don’t use it myself because I am not fifteen (they say Facebook is for grannies so there you go.) I follow my family on Instagram and enjoy seeing their pictures. I can’t imagine finding a use for Periscope but never say never. Life’s too short to play online games but Google Maps and City Mapper have changed my life in a good way. I like being able to read the Guardian while waiting for a train. WhatsApp, iPlayer, the weather, the clock, the camera … all useful. I decided I didn’t need Twitter in my life. I’d rather use the time to think. I know I am still paddling in the shallows but after wandering around 4Chan I decided I didn’t need to stay there forever, partly because I’m not fifteen but also on one of my visits I saw something I will never unsee and that was enough. Writing that has made it pop into my head again arrgh…

There is a downside - I suspect that being able to change things so quickly has made me both more careless and more liable to fiddle about with things I write. I can’t seem to sit still on a bus or a tube without first compulsively checking my phone. But I still read physical books after trying and rejecting e-books and I’ve developed such a hatred for digital compressed music and random playlists that I’ve returned to listening to albums on vinyl again. I carry around a paper address book and a tiny notebook for scribbling down ideas.

I suppose what I’m saying is that I have got better at choosing what’s helpful or fun and avoiding the rest. But I have also stopped dragging my feet and assuming that new things are going to be crap before giving them a proper chance.

The internet has opened up ways of challenging the meta narrative of the elite from Wikileaks to Copwatch and that is truly cause for celebration. But our data is everywhere, we are constantly under surveillance as we surf the web, our phones spy on us even when they’re switched off, we waste hours communicating about nothing with people we will never meet but hey… there’s a lot of great stuff around plus there’s nothing we can do about it so let’s enjoy the ride!

Penny Woolcock