Charting a course through the digital world
edits this blog and produces BBC Business films @chblm
How should we adapt our personal and professional lives to the new tools of digital communication? Answers tend to polarise between hopes that the digital revolution is the answer to all our problems and fears that it’s the end of civilisation as we know it.
How to Thrive in the Digital Age is an attempt to answer the question by Tom Chatfield, in a slim volume from a series edited by Alain de Botton and published by The School of Life. (You might prefer How to Worry Less about Money or, de Botton's own contribution, How to Think More about Sex.)
As an online games enthusiast and consultant to the likes of Google, Chatfield might be expected to be a digital cheerleader, but his view is more nuanced. He advocates time away from all digital devices in order to reassert our individuality. He tells us he prefers to draft his writing using - shock, horror - a pen and paper. And he sympathises with the worries of Jaron Lanier whose You Are Not a Gadget is another essay by someone from the techy world with serious reservations about how the revolution is playing out.
Thank you for switching off your mobile
The strength of Chatfield’s thesis is its range, taking in classical thinkers, the history of computing and his own anecdotal experience. He urges us to think about the psychology of how we navigate the digital world:
“Veiled behind ever greater complexities, we perpetually risk distancing ourselves from fully committed relationships with each other, and from fully introspective relationships with ourselves.”
He may be right - and someone needs to start the conversation. It’s hard to shrug off some of the evidence: can it really not matter that surveys of US teenagers in 1999 and 2009 found that their average daily use of media had risen from six hours and 20 minutes to seven hours and 40 minutes?
Chatfield points out that the default position now is for media to be available. ‘Quiet carriages’, for instance, designate media-free zones, but their very existence highlights what we think of as normal. It is only by cutting ourselves off from media that we can accentuate what is most characteristic of ourselves, he argues. In writing, for instance, a degree of isolation and a little serendipity to let the mind wander produces “something that both has rigour and belongs to me alone”.
The worry is that no person or institution is in a position to monitor and control the balance between technology’s advantages and its excesses. While individuals fumble for the best way to behave (and to try to get their children to behave), the companies at the centre of the revolution are driven both by profits and - to give them the benefit of the doubt - a desire to improve and expand their services. As they are always happy to remind us, we are only using them because we choose to.
The metaphor for tech adoption that springs to mind most readily is that of addiction. Digital services and devices ‘hook’ us and we are powerless to resist, most obviously in the world of gaming. One study found that the unemployed who used the virtual world Second Life found it almost as satisfying as getting a job. A dangerous case of escaping into a fantasy world created by software?
But the line between the real and the virtual isn’t as clear as it might seem. When real money is used to buy virtual goods in an online game, is that so different from real money buying an ordinary pair of jeans with a fancy label for a much higher price? What is sport but life lived in a codified and relatively consequence-free setting? And what is money but a token of invented value based on collective belief?
It’s a complex picture, and Chatfield is far from a Jeremiah. For instance, he sees some of the biggest beneficiaries of the new communications technologies being the elderly and the socially disadvantaged. But, as he concludes, the subject begs questions about the very nature of our humanity and social ties.
As I finished the book, I was on holiday in France. One evening we went to an outdoor concert in the local village. A choir of elderly men sang traditional songs to an audience of a couple of hundred people of all ages, sitting on benches, drinking (in moderation), tapping and singing along. It was the very picture of a strong community. Then it struck me: there were no mobile devices to be seen. Nobody was taking pictures, texting, checking Facebook or tweeting. I looked out for any signs of modern technology. All I saw, all evening, was one girl using her mobile - to speak to someone.
Chatfield notes that many of the most popular virtual worlds have pastoral settings. Was my imagined picture of rural contentment just another example of an urban mind in search of a simpler life? Maybe, but the balance between the virtues of direct, physical communication and those of multiple online relationships is surely worth considering. We shouldn’t just accept mindlessly, in the words of Kevin Kelly’s influential book about all this, What Technology Wants.
How to Thrive in the Digital Age, by Tom Chatfield, is published by Macmillan.