History could teach us much – if only we could spare the time. And yet, while life expectancy has more than doubled over the last 250 years, we find ourselves somehow shorn of time, oppressed by endless distractions.
An app pings; the inbox buzzes; a screen flickers; an advert interrupts; a strap line distracts and a stranger gives your comment on social media a thumbs down, starting an emotionally draining and, in the end, totally, fruitless social media brokered argument. And in what used to be communal settings such as living rooms, around dinner tables and among friends, an increasingly troubling observation: physical presence and emotional absence. The common factor?
The mobile device, a new deity, reigns supreme.
Robert Wigley, the serial entrepreneur and current Chairman of UK Finance, Britain’s banking and financial services trade association, considers humanity’s latest and potentially gravest challenge in his book Born Digital: The Story of a Distracted Generation.
With half of children’s waking hours spent in front of media devices, much of that time on social media platforms, it is worth trying to find out what they are doing and understanding why as the Oxford academic James Williams writes, “The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.”
While balancing the pros and cons of communication technologies with some dexterity, Wigley points to Big Tech and reminds us there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Indeed, the market capitalisations of Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet (the parent company of Google) and Apple are now the same size as the combined wealth of the United Kingdom and Germany – a power in the hands of very few, god-like men as the psychologist Richard Freed calls Gates, Zuckerberg and other industry leaders.
The digital Tower of Babel they are building is erected on the finite attention spans of all who use their seductively built services.
“Our teenagers are conditioned in terms of their values by their use of technology”
In short, we are feeding these neo-Pagan gods. They serve us pleasure and distraction and we, in turn, give our time – that is to say our lives. As they grow, our individual, intellectual and political horizons shrivel at the pace of one distraction at a time down to the moment. “People are living their lives through social media to the point where we are not using social media, social media is using us” says Freddie Pearson, a psychologist.
Wigley writes that our teenagers are conditioned in terms of their values by their use of technology. He adds that all dimensions of life – from birth to old age and from work to family and friendships are increasingly predicated on ease of access, minimal commitment and ultra-convenience.
The observable result is increasing callousness and indifference. Having grown up in a society that saw commitment as a concept deconstructed with increasing alacrity since the 1960s as it was seen as a barrier to self-fulfilment, teenagers are merely accelerating what their parents started.
Teenagers, in other words, have learnt lack of commitment, self-centredness and callousness from their parents. Indeed, a 2018 Pew Survey showed that 65 per cent of children in the United States didn’t live with two married parents (up from 15 per cent in 1968).
These facts are not without consequences. As the psychiatrists Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry maintain, “children brought up with parental input and with more bonding time developed higher average IQ when compared with children who did not have the same relationships.” However, “the conditions of modern life conspire against allowing children time and space to repeatedly practice the social skills necessary to the true development of empathy.”
Its absence, according to Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, is leading to a generation that is “more generation me than generation we”, pointing to the rise of narcissism as well as “high expectations, self-esteem, thinking one is above average, and focusing on personal fears.” This is what James Williams calls “cyberchondria” based on an “unfounded escalation of concern”.
“China has become the first country to declare internet addiction a clinical disorder”
However, whilst self-indulgence and short sightedness always dwelt among us, technology allowed their emotions to take centre stage, with Big Tech and AI, like crack-dealers, replacing long term happiness with short term pleasure by feeding their victims’ habit. So serious is the issue in fact, that China became the first country to declare internet addiction a clinical disorder, according to Adam Alter, an academic at the Stern Business School.
The upshot is a generation that is increasingly isolated. Indeed, Cigna, the health service company, found that loneliness had reach “epidemic levels”.
Worryingly, Wigley points to a correlation between heavy device use and an increasing likelihood of suicides and depression among teenagers. Those “who spend more than five hours a day on electronic devices are 71 per cent more likely to have suicide risk factors than those with one hour’s use”.
In addition, constant distraction means an increasing focus on the infinite second of the now and a concomitant loss of perspective, touching all aspect of our lives from the way we interact with one another to the way we resolve our differences.
Caught in this enervating state of a never-ending present, everything is true and false simultaneously. Claims can only be tested for veracity in time, with a context anchored on an agreed intellectual framework, the shorthand for which was always understood to be tradition.
The real world, of course, is not convenient. It is as it is. Humanity and exchanges between individuals and communities create kinetic energies that fill our lives with meaning.
The latter requires a dexterous brain to recalibrate on a real-time basis its responses to life’s infinite unpredictability, in particular human interactions.
Having learnt from their parents, who often are themselves cyber-junkies, children find it increasingly difficult to speak to one another, relying instead on social media platforms, and the curated word, to exchange views.
“Humanity runs the risk of being untethered from its context”
The written word however cancels the unsaid. It leaves out an infinity of subtle but extraordinarily important, instinctively conveyed meanings. These come through the shape of a smile, a posture, a glance, or a tone that enables us to interpret accurately what is actually being meant. For this, however, there is no time, patience or empathy. Wigley adds that current teenagers “find it difficult to express even slightly controversial or non-politically correct religious or political views on mainstream social media in their own names.”
Nicholas Carr, former executive director of the Harvard Business Review, believes the consequences for our intellectual life could be enormous: “We are learning to be skilled at a superficial level” and “have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us”.
The fundamental point is simply that “you are good at what you do.” And teenagers, more than any previous generations, surf; they don’t dive.
So without depth, there can be no perspective. And without that, humanity runs the risk of being untethered from its context. This is translating in political schizophrenia, as the young, stripped of the time to delve deeply into any topic, chose the easier, uncommitted position of holding a plethora of contradicting opinions in their minds.
Not being used to old-school debates and thinking intellectual disagreements to be an intolerable infringement on the virtual universe which they inhabit, free speech is seen as an abomination. Not having been prepared to deal with disagreement, they want to cancel it.
Commitment, as a result, is increasingly seen as an imposition – a distraction from, well, distraction as it were.
Politicians have picked up on this trend and herein lies the danger. Before the rise of the attention economy, politicians needed to be consistent in their thinking to be taken seriously; now they can, via social media, hold totally inconsistent positions and legislate thus.
Thereby ensuring that the digitally driven, permanently distracted state of mind is forever transposed onto the Statute books, insuring perpetual revolution. Seeking to please all, those who ought to stand up to the tyranny of the moment are in fact enabling the deconstruction of our intellectual defences. And so belief in democracy is rapidly declining.
A society built on this kind of intellectual sand runs the risk of being washed away when a challenge comes along that requires more than just a thumbs-up on Facebook.