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The digital age: Life interrupted

Book open Reading time: 3 mins

A week last Sunday, I should have been relaxing. It had been a busy weekend and I finally had a few hours to myself to relax. (Or should that be ‘chillax’?)

I should have been basking on the sofa, with a newspaper or a good book. Instead I found myself filing emails, comparing online flight prices to France, answering a LinkedIn message from an old colleague with whom I had recently ‘re-connected’, scrolling through a series of Facebook updates from friends, and replying to a couple of texts. And later that evening, I listened to a TED talk whilst washing up, followed by the radio in the shower... and finally ended the day with a quick check of Facebook.  Again.

I wonder how many of you have spent your evenings in a similar fashion? While your best efforts might have been to ‘switch off’, you find yourself wholly and utterly ‘switched on.’

Tom Chatfield’s ‘How to thrive in a digital age’ (part of the new School of Life series) is a book very much of its time – providing us with an erudite examination on what our ‘wired’ life and our need to be consistently connected is doing to us.

With its simple blue cover, curved edges and a florescent green cloud happily ensconced in the middle, Chatfield’s book feels fresh and exudes a sense of calm.  Chatfield argues that today, we now have to actively decide when we want to switch digital media off rather than on, aptly pointing out that if you want a relatively quiet train journey in this country, you now have to request the ‘quiet carriage.’

Our immediate access to digital media – its information, its entertainment, and its knowledge – is unprecedented, but this ‘immediacy,’ while wonderful in so many respects, can also be dangerous if we do not give ourselves adequate thinking time. Chatfield states thoughtfully that while help (or a gentle poke) can often be a mere ‘click away,’ it’s vital that we rank our own needs above that of our ‘machines’ if we are to stay in control.

Chatfield discusses how we need ‘tenses other than the present’ in our lives – and that no technology is a substitute for memory. While Facebook’s timeline has the potential to become a powerful historical source, documenting the everyday lives of billions, it cannot buy us more ‘time’, nor can it show the richness of our complex characters and how we change over the years.  And it cannot, indeed should not, replace our memory and how our memories shape us as individuals. It’s essential that we trust our memory, because even remembering things differently to how they actually occurred is part of our makeup. Memory, Chatfield observes, ‘cannot be outsourced.’

No matter how many photos you might upload of the latest party or wedding you attended, your profile alone does not sum up who you are. Likewise, a failure to take a digital camera on holiday (and thus no photographic evidence), does not mean that that experience 'did not exist'… And I am not sure if it’s because I lost a parent at a young age, but when those closest to me leave a voice message on my mobile, I refrain from deleting their latest message until I see them again…  Could that be because I do not trust myself to remember their voice or it is more a case of technology offering me the opportunity to do this at the click of a simple button?

Chatfield’s book touches on many thought-provoking and wise themes about how to thrive in this new digital era.  Sympathetic to technology lovers (he’s worked with Google and Mind Candy), but also offering objective advice as to its pitfalls and dangers, this book shows how ultimately it’s down to us as individuals to decide how big a role we want different digital technologies to play in our life.

I love the opportunities and possibilities technology (tapped and untapped) can give, as much as any gadget geek… but this Sunday evening I read Chatfield’s book from cover to cover. Last night, I had dinner with a friend.  I switched off my mobile phone on both occasions.  I’ve never felt more connected.