“I used to be a human being,” writes Andrew Sullivan. “(But) an endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts.
“It broke me. It might break you, too.”
I read numerous studies about the dangers of technology and I try to practise what I preach. But when I came across Sullivan’s sobering essay on how ‘living-in-the-web’ had affected his life, I realised that as much as we think we’re in control – we’re not.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, our reliance on smart devices, instant international news, other people’s blogs, Youtube videos gone viral and online communication with ‘friends’ from years back, grows.
I didn’t realise how connected I was to my phone, my laptop and the internet until I began noticing the same, almost imperceptible, behaviour in my pre-teen daughter.
She was given a second-hand smartphone, which has been very useful, as it’s a good thing to have in emergencies. She was also kindly gifted an almost-new iPad, which started off as a great educational tool – but has morphed into a portal for brainless, inane chatter and absurd one-liners by online American vloggers, whose topics of choice range from frivolous to mindless.
We’re pretty balanced otherwise, as we actually talk to each other around the supper table, and stare out car windows on long trips, rather than relying on lap machine entertainment while getting there.
Still, if we don’t put a stop to our growing obsession, who will?
Sullivan watched the growth of internet mania with interest, at first. “More and more people got a smartphone – connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once.
“Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had been – and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating.”
If the internet killed you, Sullivan used to joke, then he’d be the first to find out. But years later, the joke wore thin, as his health deteriorated owing to his 24/7, always ‘on’, internet-fuelled online career.
Many observers also note that our ability to concentrate for longer than a couple of minutes is waning. We’re used to quick-glance web content, or fast-track whatsapp messaging. We’re always busy; who has time for anything else?
There’s no easy answer, because there’s unparalleled value in being connected to the world, and to having the security of a phone while on the road, and to having the freedom to work from a coffee shop with good cappuccino and smooth WiFi.
So I set myself – and my daughter – the challenge of knowing when to stop. If I find myself checking Facebook rather than spotting a great sunset, I take my phone inside and hide it under a pile of books.
I’ve told my kids that the best way to live a good life – day by day – is to make sure that the sunrise is the first thing you see in the morning – and a book the last thing at night.
What happens in-between is still a work-in-progress.