The media have recently been awash with stories about the psychological impact of excessive internet usage, and the use of social networking sites in particular. Lady Greenfield has said that these sites risk “infantilising” us psychologically, condemning us to hyper-active, low-attention-span relationships. As Wired reported, a new book, Distracted, offers a chilling vision of how the brain responds to the interactive, clickable world that many are growing addicted to (though the choice of subtitle, “the Coming Dark Age”, suggests a publisher whose brain might also be suffering from a little hyperactivity). This thesis echoes a lovely line in Andrew Barry’s Political Machines, about how interactive technology reduces the scope for “creative passivity”.
This strikes me as more than standard Daily Express “modern society ate my child” hysteria. Perhaps this is personal anxiety on my part. My GCSE revision was constantly threatened by the fact that my guitar was lying dormant in the next room, or worse, in the same room. But had I been but two taps of my index finger away from my guitar – or, more to the point, from my 350 “friends”, their photos, my entire music collection, an amusing clip of a racoon that thinks it’s a horse, in-depth analysis of Arsenal’s passing patterns, a US President’s press conference, hilarious re-dubbed clips of Hitler in his bunker, my bank balance etc. etc. ETC. – I wonder whether I would have ended up with any GCSEs at all. More intense forms of concentration seem harder still.
We know from OfCom data that the British have a particular talent/problem here. We use this stuff more than virtually any other nation in the world. The government would be inclined to view that as a triumph. We were the first nation in the world to achieve 100% broadband roll-out. Lord Carter has recently outlined a vision to push Britain to its next stage of digital development. Once it is accepted that “smaller” nations, such as Denmark, Estonia and Singapore, have an advantage in upgrading this sort of infrastructure, one could convincingly argue that Britain is a world leader in this public nurturing of digital infrastructure.
But at a time when Britain is routinely accused of being uniquely vulnerable to the global downturn, when is someone going finally to explain why we have chosen to assert our techno-industrial machismo in this particular arena? I wrote a Prospect piece posing this question three years ago, and the answer doesn’t seem any more apparent. All that’s changed is that the evidence is beginning to seep out of the amphetamine-like effect on our brains, while the evidence of economic benefits seems more remote. Only according to the most orthodox neo-classical utilitarianism—“if we preferred to read a book than to read Twitter, we would; since we don’t, Twitter represents progress”—is there any economic advance being made. Should there be an economic calculation of how attention deficit impacts upon a workforce, especially a knowledge-based one, the wisdom of making Britain a “world leader” in this space comes to seem even more questionable.
The Prime Minister is fascinated by “Britishness”. Cultural historians might one day want to reflect on the dramatic appearance of “digital Britain”, and ask two inter-related questions. Why were our turn-of-the-millennium leaders so drawn to telecoms and computers as the basis for national prestige? Much of the West was swept by a knowledge economy, post-industrial rhetoric, but only we seemed to believe it sufficiently to throw the weight of the state behind it quite so effectively. And why were we as individuals so drawn to social networking, as a leisure pursuit in its own right, that could crowd out other forms of media “consumption”? This reflects something about the fabric of British social life, and perhaps also the British psyche, that hasn’t yet been incorporated into our sense of ourselves.