Although one might dispute that societies have always progressed, they have certainly always changed. The Digital Age brings changes to our society on a daily basis. The speed and extent of this change seem to divide commentators into two camps. There are those that are breathlessly excited by the possibilities of digital living, the size of social networking sites, the new ways we will work and play – and all the rest. In the other camp are those who issue stern warnings about the future of digital living. They are wary of, well, the size of social networking sites, the new way we will work and play – and all the rest.
What makes How To Thrive in the Digital Age so engaging and useful is that it finds a way between these extremes. Tom Chatfield is, of course, aware of the debate. He acknowledges and discusses the disappointed dystopian views of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget and the lament that the internet should really be able to do better than provide us with a half-baked amateur encyclopaedia and an evangelist like Clay Shirky’s theory of cognitive surplus, the hope that the internet will harness all our extra intellectual efforts to produce a fully-baked amateur encyclopaedia. However, what he does is pull a neat side-step to avoid this debate by shifting his focus not from what the technology is capable of, but what experiences it will give us.
The difference is crucial. The technology poses its own questions, its possibilities are untapped and unknown. Yet, we remain relatively constant: human beings looking to belong, feel happy, improve ourselves and thrive. Humankind is already growing up fast in the digital age. The questions we will need to ask will be best answered by understanding what experiences we want, not merely by devising what technology can do and hoping we will have a use for it.
It is this theme I have most sympathy for. Chatfield shows both that technology can enrich our immersion in the world – and prevent it. Email can both keep us in touch at a convenient place with people thousands of miles away, immersing us in our friends and families lives, yet its constant pinging attention-seeking can prevent us from immersing ourselves in other activities properly. It can both focus and divide the attention. To thrive we must be able to experience our world fully and deeply. The digital age helps us do this when it helps us be more human. Yet it can also ask us to think like a computer, multi-tasking between constant stimuli. Humans do not think well like this.
In the School of Life event ‘How To Make Better Decisions’ we discuss this type of decision fatigue, how an endless switching between tasks wears us down, leading to poor decisions, a sense of life out of control and ultimately to genuine sadness and depression. Like Tom, I hope we can learn to frame our lives to stop the Digital Age affecting us like this. We must realise it is not how quickly or how many emails we can respond to, but how well. We must realise that our capacity for thinking is finite and precious and learn to guard it. How To Thrive in the Digital Age arms us with the ideas we need to stop seeing technology as something that does things to us, but as something we can make choices about to build better lives.
Nick Southgate is a faculty member at The School of Life, teaching the class How To Be Cool. Tom Chatfield will be leading our class How To Live In A Wired World on Thursday 31 May, for details and to book click here.