The internet has transformed life in the past quarter of a century: from social networks to online shopping, it has made communications faster, easier, cheaper and more dispersed. However, the digital revolution is not all good. Most of us are much more distracted than we used to be. Our ability to focus on a task is surely diminished if we are constantly checking our smartphones.
Whole generations are growing up addicted to digital media — constantly exposed to superficial images, inconsequential news, gossip and so forth, much of it irrelevant to our lives, and probably, at some level, harmful. Various research has shown that millennials are more anxious, depressed and even more lonely than previous generations, probably because they spend too much time online.
I fear that information overload and too much choice may almost be worse than the world before the web arrived. I grew up having to undertake school and undergraduate research in libraries using books and journals. Such resources were rationed and not always available. However, in certain respects, scarcity of information — or, at least, limited access — had advantages. Perhaps it made us more thoughtful, and able to concentrate better.
Attention spans have generally reduced, be it our willingness to read a book from cover to cover, listen to a whole speech or lecture, write a proper letter or memorise a poem. People are naturally lazy and enjoy convenience, so will always avoid intellectual effort if possible. It is good to test the brain, just as physical exercise is good for the musculature, but clever software helps to undermine willpower.
Of course, the online universe can be a tremendous tool for learning. Teachers can reach countless students and deliver academic courses at zero cost once the material is prepared. However, it is hard to believe that clips such as the video memes from YouTube, which make up the bulk of shared online content, are really imparting wisdom across the globe. Unfortunately, Gresham’s law applies to web traffic — the lowest common denominator wins.
As Kingsley Amis wrote in 1960 about university expansion: “More will mean worse.” We all have limited time and brain power, and our capacity to absorb the avalanche of data is constantly overwhelmed. This can interfere with productivity, and leave us feeling indecisive and despairing, busy fools trying to sort through the dross.
Our smartphones can be cameras, gaming consoles, health trackers, maps, shopping tools and more. This versatility is brilliant in a practical sense — mobiles feel an essential accessory for modern life. However, they cannot begin to replace genuine human interaction, or authentic experiences. Tourists now seem more intent on taking photos of the place they’re visiting than actually enjoying the moment of being in a historic location. It seems to me they have completely lost the point of travel.
Addiction to smartphones can damage personal and professional relationships. Having a huge virtual network of connections cons you into thinking that these are real friends and genuine contacts. Excessive screen time makes us more solitary, not more social. Deep friendships and real partnerships are what matter — for one’s happiness and probably one’s career, too.
Most success comes from intensive deliberation — a single-minded approach. Original thought and genuine relationships are more likely to flourish away from the digital clutter and noise. Business and personal meetings are best with no mobile devices or laptops and, instead, maximum engagement with the people in the room.
I could not conduct my work without digital communications, yet the downsides are real, from cyber-crime to fake news, from job losses in disrupted industries to privacy threats, from digital monopolies to smartphone addiction.
Society isn’t going to dump digital technology and revert to more traditional communication and entertainment habits, but we should try to restrict our screen exposure and seek to better understand its insidious influence.
Big tech companies must become significantly more responsible, otherwise they will face onerous regulation and harsher taxation. Unquestioning adoption of every new device and app is the road to madness.
Contentment is about selection, simplicity and priorities. I’m not sure the online jungle offers those.