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John Fanning writes: Over the last decade, social media has transformed the way we work, communicate and play. And inevitably a new publishing category has grown up alongside this phenomenon analysing and debating its implications.

Revolutions tend to make some things better but invariably have some unforeseen and unwelcome side-effects too, and so the battle lines are being drawn between the tech evangelists and the technophobes. The former believe that the digital age heralds a new dawn, where everyone will be free to express their creativity and reach the highest self-actualised rung in Maslow’s hierarchy.

Clay Shirky, who famously declared that “no one reads War and Peace anymore, it’s too long and not all that interesting”, is a committed enthusiast, who has argued that “we are living in the middle of the largest increase in our expressive capacity in the history of the human race”. The more restrained English evangelist Charles Leadbeater makes a similar point: “in the twentieth century everyone was a worker by day and a consumer at weekends; in the twenty-first century more people will see themselves as participants, contributors, innovators”.

The early critics concentrated on the nasty things that excessive exposure to the new devices was supposedly doing to our brains, our psyches, ourselves. One of the most prominent was US business and technology commentator Nicholas Carr, whose 2010 bestseller The Shallows, was one of the most apocalyptic of analyses, warning of brain damage, leading to intellectual decay. because we will become less able to absorb complex information: “we are becoming skimmers, scanners and scrollers”. In Alone Together (2011) US academic Sherry Turkle argued that “technology makes us less human; under the illusion of allowing us to connect better it is actually isolating us from real human interaction in a cyber reality that is a poor imitation of the real world”.

The problem with this first wave of comment on the digital revolution is that both sides are so committed to their cause that they lack balance. The enthusiasts are so awestruck they forget to take into account Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “we shape our tools and therefore our tools shape us”. The critics ignore the fact that no matter how we are being affected we are where we are and you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Technology correspondent Aleks Krotoski’s advice is worth bearing in mind here: “It is an insidious trait of the adults of one generation to point a finger at a technology they can’t understand and blame it on a generation they can’t control.” Fortunately a new wave of less excited analyses, taking a more balanced approach to our brave new world, is now starting to appear.

Michael Harris’s The End of Absence (2014) reminds us that every revolution, from papyrus, to the printing press to Twitter, provides us with new opportunities but also represents a loss of something that we once valued. Every new technology is an invitation to enhance a part of our lives, but at the expense of another part and Harris believes we may be losing the benefits that solitude, silence and stillness once provided; “the daydreaming silences in our lives are filled, the burning solitudes are extinguished”. This could result in a loss of creativity and innovation because we are at our most creative when we are in state of reverie, as when staring out of a train window. The period between sleeping and being fully awake has long been recognised as a time of heightened creativity but if, as surveys of young people’s behaviour suggest, we check our Facebook page the instant we regain consciousness, these opportunities will have been forsaken.

Harris also suggests that we are missing out on chance encounters because we have surrendered too much to algorithmetic management. For example, Amazon make much of their “if you liked that you’ll like this” book recommendations, but the results are highly predictable and are no substitute for the serendipity of bumping into a less predictable but more rewarding title as a consequence of visiting a real bookshop. In the same way the Googleisation of knowledge doesn’t allow for the strange vagaries of human intuition and creative leaps: “we need our searching to include cross wiring and dumb accidents not just algorithmetic surety”. Harris suggests that we need to be conscious of what we are losing ‑ “the impulse to hold more of the world in our arms leaves us holding more of reality at arm’s length” ‑ and then to consciously and regularly take digital time out. 

Laurence Scott, a young Dublin PhD now making a name for himself in London intellectual circles, has recently published The Four-Dimensional Human (2015) whose imaginative title suggests that the digital age does represent a different space. Scott argues that if you dabble in other realms you shouldn’t expect to remain unchanged. The fact that in the UK text messaging has now overtaken phone calls and speaking face to face as the main focus of daily communication being a case in point. The fourth dimension was a concept much loved by science fiction writers and Scott introduces the word “everywhereness” to stand for the experience of being in this new state of mind where life is lived more robustly and intensely. However he suggests a contradiction at the heart of the digital age; our “everywhereness”, and he could have added “allthetimeness”, although undoubtedly intense, is nevertheless accompanied by diminishing empathy and increasing feelings of alienation. In explaining the reason for this he comes very close to Harris’s thesis: “we have an everywhereness to us now that inevitably alters our relationship to those stalwart human aspects of self-containment, remoteness and isolation”. Where Harris recommends some form of digital detox as a partial remedy Scott opts for the currently fashionable “mindfulness” movement

Both Harris and Scott suggest that Homo Digitalis is in the process of becoming a different species but are not unduly worried, implying that this is merely another evolutionary stage in the ascent of man. Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen (2015) examines whether digital reading, especially the use of eBooks is reshaping our understanding of what it means to read. For over twenty years we have been reading on computers, then tablets and mobile devices, and Baron believes that the world of reading has been shaken up “to a degree not seen for centuries”. She is a professor of linguistics in Washington and has carried out numerous studies comparing how we read on paper to how we read on screens. She comes to two main conclusions. The first is that the two reading experiences are different: digital devices are better for searching and consuming gulps of information but physical books are better for “deep reading” and for argument and reflection. She refers to the former as “reading on the prowl” and the latter as “continuous reading”.

More worrying is her finding that screen content is shortening our attention span, “making us more literal-minded and reducing opportunities to engage with abstract content”. However Barron’s second main theme is that respondents in all her surveys overwhelmingly prefer to read text in printed books rather than on screen, finding the experience more rewarding, not only in terms of greater concentration but for the whole physical experience. She notes that in an effort to overcome the superior aura of the printed book there is now an aerosol eBook enhancer called ‘Smell of Books’ that you can spray on your Kindle to provide a “clean musty smell”.

Finally, Bernard Harcourt’s Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age (2015) is the most pessimistic of all the recent publications, believing that the degree of exposure we actively collude in through our engagement with the internet and social media is profoundly disturbing. He agrees with the other three authors that we have entered a different space but believes that it is by no means a friendly or benign territory. The author believes we are under constant surveillance by the big digital beasts, particularly Google and Facebook. Foucault is a major influence in this connection and is quoted repeatedly.

In his studies of power and punishment, Foucault analysed how prisons involve social conditioning and identity formation because prisoners are aware that they are under constant surveillance. Harcourt suggests that we are now under surveillance by the large tech businesses. He doesn’t really pursue how this is affecting us, concentrating rather on how the results of the surveillance. Google can draw up a fairly comprehensive picture of our lives in disturbing detail ‑ “who we are, what we do, what we like, where we go, who we talk to, what we think about, what we are interested in –all these things are seized, packaged, commodified and sold on the market”. This represents an unprecedented level of surveillance which Harcourt calls “the expository society” and he suggests that we surrender our privacy because of the consumer convenience and because we crave the exposure facilitated by social media. I think he’s correct in stating that we are sleepwalking into an enhanced surveillance state yet I suspect that if people were more conscious of the volume of data being collected about them they would still accept it as a reasonable price for the benefits of Google’s bottomless pit of information every time they press the search button.

The author is even more critical of Facebook, described as “neo-liberal technology par excellence”. This is a business which encourages its users to turn themselves into entrepreneurial entities by “updating their status” on a regular basis in the same way a corporate brand would regularly update its advertising. Facebook urges its users to think like a brand and create a new “invested self”. Harcourt’s conclusion is that “we have witnessed a distinctive shift from the dominance of humanist sentiment in the post war years to a reign of economistic attitude in the 21st century”.

It’s hard to argue with that but the reign of a dominant economistic attitude started long before the digital revolution and people have always been endeavouring to present themselves in a more attractive light. Harcourt concludes that we should engage in acts of disobedience ranging from leaking official secret documents to aggressively encrypting personal information. He’s a fan of Julian Assange, who started WikiLeaks, where whistle-blowers could upload secret documents, and Ed Snowden, who leaked hundreds of thousands of National Security Agency documents in 2013.

We may all not want to take disobedience to these extremes, but Harcourt’s book is a timely reminder of how the boundaries between the state, the market and the private realm are becoming seriously blurred. All four books agree that the digital revolution is not merely a question of new channels of communication; it represents, in Laurence Scott’s phrase, a new dimension. This is a space of undoubted benefits, but it comes at a cost. The loss of solitude emphasised by Harris and Scott is one. Picasso reminded us that “without great solitude no serious work is possible”. If we now check our mobile phones every six minutes we are not likely to experience solitude. Baron alerts us to the likelihood that reading on screens inhibits our ability to concentrate but Harcourt warns of a more troubling potential loss, privacy. When Mark Zuckerberg blithely announced that “privacy is no longer a social norm” nobody shouted stop. Just because the new masters of the universe are chronically underdressed doesn’t mean they are all benevolent lovable bunnies. A recent editorial in the Observer put it well; “they may look different than arms dealers and oil companies but they are ultimately members of the same species: powerful corporations with their own imperatives, some of which may be anti-social if not actively sociopathic ‑ they need regulation”.

They undoubtedly need regulation and it looks like the EU is starting to move in that direction. At an individual level we need to be conscious of the underlying implications of the new digital age and these books represent a good starting point. At a national and European level we need to ensure that the big beasts of the digital jungle are not allowed untrammelled freedom. Charles Handy, the Irish-born business philosopher who has written over a dozen books on modern corporations, made this observation in his latest publication, The Second Curve (2015); “If Facebook can rustle up $19b from its own resources to buy up a possible competitor, if Google can use its wealth to corner all the artificial intelligence around, are we seeing the need for a new trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt?

Main books referred to:

Words Onscreen, Naomi S Barron, Oxford University Press 2015
Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, Bernard Harcourt, Harvard University Press 2015.
The End of Absence, Michael Harris, Current (Penguin) 2014
The Four-Dimensional Human, Laurence Scott, William Heinemann 2015

13/7/2016