Shrinking the World

Shrinking the World

John Freeman, Text

As a reluctant netizen, I was a soft target for this book, which contains “the 4,000-year story of how email came to rule our lives”.

Nevertheless I believe Freeman gathers some good evidence to back up his argument that the internet is putting people under strain, altering our brain chemistry, inflating our sense of self-importance and isolating us from real-world places where people gather.

Here are some scary stats:

  • By 2011, it is estimated there will be 3.2 billion people sending and receiving emails.
  • In 2009, the average office worker spent 41 per cent of the day responding to email.
  • Seventy-five per cent of North Americans spend more time with their computer than their spouse.
  • Seventy per cent of pop-up email alerts provoked a reaction in just seven seconds.
  • There are six billion people in the world and roughly 600 million emails are sent every ten minutes.
  • Information overload is costing the US economy $650 billion.

So what’s behind this strange lure that has us hooked for long hours to computers, which, Freeman says, beam light directly into our pupils drying our eyes more and more as the blink rate decreases?

Largely, he claims, it is commerce. It’s commerce that “wants us to work, at nights on the weekends, on holidays”, to buy products available online or to view advertisements that tempt us to purchase products from real-world shops.

If you think the web actually does what its name implies and makes you feel connected, Freeman would parry: “The difference between a smiley face and an actual smile is too large to calculate. Nothing — especially ‘lol’ — can quite convey the sound of a friend’s laughter.”

He’d also say that you feeling connected is only part of the point. Technology has not cured inequality and actually reinforces the gaps between rich and poor: Africa, for example, is home to 14 per cent of the world’s population but it accounts for just 3 per cent of the world’s internet users.

The effect Freeman claims computer use has on our thinking is sobering: “Interrupted every 30 seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer.”

In other words, the cognitive window narrows and we’re rewired for speed rather than mindfulness.

Erk.

Shrinking the World contains interesting communication history from the earliest clay tablets to telegrams, faxes, letters and even the Pony Express (which lasted just 18 months in America, ending in 1861).

The book looks forward, too, and had me nightmarishly imagining harried historians of the future trawling archives consisting of strings of one-sentence emails replete with smiley faces.

Seriously, though, if we can’t accurately preserve history, how do we know it’s not being rewritten to delete politically sensitive material?

Freeman says that in May 2008, the Bush administration admitted in court that it had lost three months of email from the initial months of the Iraq War due to a systems upgrade. All up, between the exact date of the start of the war on May 23, 2003 and 2005, the Executive Office of the President lost more than five million emails.

Freeman sees other problems emerging from our online obsession, including the growth of cyber crime, a decline in literacy rates and a disturbing disparity between the way people conduct themselves online and how they behave face-to-face.

Regarding the latter, the SA Attorney General, Michael Atkinson, said in the Sydney Morning Herald in February, “In blog sites there is just no restraint. It is a jungle of criminal defamation and identity theft, a sewer of fraud.”

Freeman is editor of the internationally-renowned magazine Granta — so no Luddite. Like me, he longs for a world of “slow communication”, and its gentler effect on the human psyche. He quotes Hélène Cixous, who says that letters (on paper) provide “a fine, tender separation … like an amniotic membrane that lets the sound of blood pass through”.

He also argues for a reassertion of principles that he believes have been lost in the virtual world.

They include:

  • valuing the physical world — both the tangible commons and the rhythms of our bodies; and
  • reinstating the careful deliberation that relationships and certain expressions — like love, forgiveness, anger and regret — require.

My strong take-home message from this book (and it’s one of many tips Freeman gives about how to manage the tyranny of email) is: Don’t Send!

Pick up the phone, walk up the hall, write a love note, spend more time smiling and appreciating real smiles and the skin they’re in. Read a book or just enjoy some solitude and silence away from the screen.

Life’s too short to spend it dealing with email.

Marjorie Lewis-Jones

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