It’s strange how a single sentence, a word, even a smell, can bring back long forgotten memories completely unexpectedly and just when we least expect them, transporting us off into a different time and place, almost against our will, and bringing images before our mind’s eye as if we were right there at that moment. I know people who claim to have déjà vu and re-live something which is happening to them at one moment or another, or know exactly what is going to happen next because they’ve seen it before, but they are few and far between. People who can be wafted off, though, back into another time and place by a smell, a mere hint of memory, are all around us.

Is there anybody out there?

is one of the sentences that does it for me: an instant snap back in time to my just after first years in Germany were completed, as I was finding my feet, wondering what was going on and beginning, despite the thoughts and comments of other people around me, to explore my surroundings. It is a line taken from the song Hello (Turn Your Radio On) by Shakespears Sister, which came out in 1991 and was never a massive hit, but managed to work its way into my mind nonetheless. Looking back at it today, I tend to associate this line more with my time in Germany from a few years earlier – I arrived here in the mid-Eighties – even though I know that this is not possible: I see myself walking out of the British barracks and down a long, fairly deserted road into the nearest German town, and discovering that there was indeed a world outside of the military, and ripe for exploration. It was an eye-opening time, above all, because, and not for the first time, I discovered everything I had been taught in school, in my early years working after graduation, and even during military training before being assigned to a post in Germany, was wrong.

I write that this was not the first time because my belief in the education system was thrown out of line in the mid-Seventies when I made my first – unofficial – trip overseas and discovered, to my amazement, that French people were much the same as the English, aside from their language. Unofficial because I was fourteen and supposed to be elsewhere at the time: I had told no one of my plans, which would have been turned down by what I considered to be the establishment of family and school. Clearly they would take me as too young to travel overseas alone, and I – being a typical teenager – would have disagreed with them, but lost the fight. It is almost as if everywhere I have been over the last nearly fifty years has been an eye opener, an experience which has thrown all I had thought, all I had been told earlier out with the garbage – and rightly so – as being biased, subject to prejudice or, worse still in my mind, a complete lack of personal experience. That is: I can understand a person being prejudice against another person or race if they have had experience of them, but otherwise find it unacceptable. Someone who is prepared to condemn without first attempting to understand, without tasting of the fruits, so to speak, has no place, in my mind, to comment and certainly not to condemn.

A brave new world has dawned upon the human race,
Where words are meaning less, and everything’s surreal.
Gonna have to reach my friends to find out how I feel.

Today we can claim knowledge of the entire world with a scroll of our thumbs, a flick across a small screen, and a quick check on Wikipedia or any other web site of our choice, and believe ourselves to be up-to-date and well educated. Until, that is, we actually move out of our comfort zones and take a chance in the outside world which, coming full circle, is what I was doing back in the Seventies in France and then the Eighties in Germany and right across Europe: finding out if there is anybody out there.

And now these few words have taken me on another journey, as I sit here and read back what I have written, and see almost a prognosis of the future – that is from the early Nineties through to today – and wonder whether mankind is really so easy to see through that a simple pop sing can foretell our future in a single line. I wonder how many people today, dedicated if not infatuated by their smart phones, rely on someone else – or even a machine – to tell them what their feelings, their emotions, their prospects are for the day ahead. For you and I, coming from a certain era – we are both children of the Sixties – such an idea would probably make us laugh and point in the direction of science fiction and a time when Artificial Intelligence and robots rule the world – if the apes don’t gain back control and destroy everything first. The sad thing is, we would probably have to suck our gaiety back down into our guts and face reality:

The app simply reminds you to smile at regular intervals of your choosing and makes use of the Affdex SDK to monitor the presence of a smile before logging it for you. To help promote a natural smile, which is important when attempting to improve happiness, the app first helps you to become focused on taking time to smile before presenting a stimulus to evoke a smile. This stimulus could be a favourite photo, a memory or a thought…

This, for me, is the end of civilisation as we know it: an application for a smart phone to teach people, or to remind them, how to smile.

Back in the Nineties I attended a conference in Manchester, England, where we had an opportunity to discuss what we were hearing with each other over a few drinks in the evenings. This was the first time that I discovered someone who had learned – and I mean: taken a complete course in how to do it – how to show that they are listening to someone. I cannot remember what we were talking about as I was so transfixed by his actions: first a slight nod of the head, then a smile, then a movement of the head to the left, and back up straight, the smile again, a nod and a small shrug of the shoulders. If my comments to him were longer than this string of ‘showing attention’ movements, he simply began from stage one again, and went through the entire sequence in exactly the same manner; no changes whatsoever, because that was what he had been taught. I wondered, as he did it, whether he was concentrating on the actions, or actually listening to what I was saying and reacting automatically. And now, whenever I see someone smiling while using their smart phone, I shall undoubtedly wonder whether it is because they saw something amusing, are pleased in general, or have been told to smile by an application installed on the phone.

So when I read Siobhan Fahey’s words in that song, my mind goes off into another world controlled by artificial intelligence, and by actions only carried out, emotions only shown, because a person has been instructed to. A sad state of affairs, and one which really does belong to science fiction – the cheapest kind at that – but, looking around me, I’m not so sure that it isn’t already part of our lives and, one day, stepping out of the comfort zone will no longer be travelling overseas and exploring, but looking up from your electronic gadgets or, worse still, leaving them turned off – but close at hand – for a while.

The strange thing is, and I am sure you’ll be able to confirm this to a certain extent, stepping out of a comfort zone today tends to be picking up a pen and writing to someone. People have no problems when it comes to sharing their most intimate details on social media – and some of the photographic evidence uploaded confirms this sad state of affairs – but cannot bring themselves to address the same things on paper. Is it because they are writing to a specific person, even if their correspondent is, effectively, a stranger? Everyone on the internet is a stranger – the number of known, real life friends people have on their social media accounts is often far less than the number of people they have never met.

Or perhaps it is simply, as I heard in a lecture recently, that our education system has changed so much since the turn of the last century, no one knows how to write a letter any more. The premise in this lecture, from Wesley Cecil, was that the change from the old Latin-based education system to the more modern Prussian one, which took place in the United States mid-nineteenth century, removed all those subjects which promoted individual thinking and writing; such as rhetoric, classical literature, Latin, geometry and the like. Because people, he claimed, had not learned how to formulate a sentence, had not learned – following the writing style of Cicero – how to express themselves, the art of letter writing died a death from about 1920 onwards, which is roughly when those who had been educated under the old system died out.

When I read through the thousands of letters preserved and published from the Victorian era and earlier, I can understand what he meant. People who have received a certain level of education which encompasses the Classics, or who take an interest in them of their own volition, tend to stick with letter writing, and those who have been through the normal education system, don’t. The difference between educating the mind, the old system, so that students can further their knowledge by their own efforts of reading and researching, compared to the educate for work in the new system, as we have it today.

And then we have attention span, thanks to social media services such as Twitter where everything has to be abbreviated and rushes past so quickly, we have no time to concentrate on or take in anything longer than one hundred and forty characters. This is hardly a new thing, as you know, but has been around since writing for a larger public became popular, and Allen Lane produced his first pocket books –at sixpence each which, he was told, would never sell – for ordinary people under his own name and the Penguin brand. Then came all the other publishers with their own brands, and writers such as Edgar Wallace, who could dictate a novel or crime thriller in three days flat and didn’t need it correcting or editing – or didn’t want it checking, would perhaps be better, since he hated doing it himself – prior to publication. Novels and other works which could be devoured in an afternoon, and required very little if any brain power. What I would call brain candy today: short-term sweetness for the mind with no material worth or benefit whatsoever.

I am undoubtedly being very unfair in this: there are bound to be many good authors out there who attract people normally suffering from short attention spans and manage to lock them into another world where they forget to look up and be distracted; now and then we see a surprise author appearing who brings people back to reading who we might never have imagined knew what the inside of a book looks like, but, sadly, it isn’t all that often.

It is a dangerous and fateful presumption, besides the absurd temerity that it implies, to disdain what we do not comprehend. For after you have established, according to your fine understanding, the limits of truth and falsehood, and it turns out you must necessarily believe things even stranger than those you deny, you are obliged from then on to abandon these limits.

So wrote Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century in one of his many wonderful Essays, and the idea is definitely one to live your life by: if you don’t understand something, if your knowledge is failing in one or another point, correct it. Go out there, outside the comfort zone which has been imposed upon you, and discover the truth for yourself. Don’t let someone else tell you how you feel, or instruct you on whether anyone else is out there worth finding: do it for yourself. And if that means travelling, so be it. If it means simply taking up pen and paper and writing to a stranger in some foreign land, also good. You never know – as I have always told myself before beginning a new letter – they might just feel challenged by your words, your ideas, your very old-fashioned strangeness, and write back.