Carl Honore, global Guru of the Slow movement and author of insightful books on where we are headed with in the Fast lane. Here he shares insights on the effects of the phone revolution and how smart phones are not always the smartest choice!
When Barack Obama became president of the United States in January, his first victory was not steering the stimulus package through Congress or closing the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay. It was persuading his security staff to let him keep his BlackBerry.
“I won the fight,” declared the new and very relieved leader of the free world.
Obama is not alone in refusing to part with his smartphone. Madonna sleeps with her BlackBerry under her pillow. Celebrities from Paris Hilton to David Beckham are seldom photographed without a mobile in hand. Millions of people are right now communicating on handheld devices in offices, beds, cars, trains, parks, restaurants, on the toilet, in the shower – anywhere they can get a signal.
No wonder the BlackBerry has been dubbed the CrackBerry. Or that hardcore fans of Apple’s rival handset talk of catching iPhoneitis.
But is it fair to liken a smartphone to a hard drug or a mental illness? To blame the new tools of communication for knocking our lives out of balance?
People often assume that as a proponent of the Slow movement I should be against new technology. They think that slowing down, putting your life in balance, means throwing away the gadgets. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
I am no Luddite. I love technology and own all the latest high-tech goodies. To me, being able to tap the Web or speak and write to anyone anytime anywhere is exhilarating. By freeing us from the constraints of time and space, mobile communication can help us “seize the moment” and “make the most of now,” which is what the Slow movement is all about.
I live in London, and the other day I met with colleagues from Norway and the United States. A few years ago, we would have flown to a hub city, talked and then flown back again. It would have taken at least a day, probably longer. This being 2009, however, we held a Web conference and finished inside an hour. That same afternoon I was able to take my daughter rollerblading.
The new technology brings us together in ways that seemed like science fiction not long ago. On a recent trip to Canada, I spent a long session on the webcam with my son back in London. We chose the players for our Champions League Fantasy Football team and then watched part of the Chelsea-Juventus match together. Well, not “together” in the traditional sense of the word, but we were a lot closer than we would have been without that long-distance link.
Before mobile communication, time, distance and my very poor handwriting killed off most of my long-distance friendships. Today, thanks to email, Facebook and Twitter, I’m in touch with mates on every continent.
One friend recently spent three weeks in Brazil. In the past I would have felt lucky to receive a postcard. This time around I got daily online updates complete with photos and video clips. Halfway through his trip, I recommended a bar in Rio de Janeiro. He went along and ended up meeting the woman of his dreams. Here is the text he sent me from the taxi on the way home that night: “Think I just met my future wife. Owe you one.”
Thanks to the new technology, I felt like I was right there with him in the back of that Rio cab. My experience of his trip was enriched and our friendship strengthened.
Mobile communication can help us seize the moment in ways that go beyond relationships. Teamed with GPS technology, smartphones turn into wise and well-connected tour guides. As you wander round Florence, your iPhone pinpoints an exquisite medieval chapel hidden round the corner. Or a glorious trattoria two streets away. Without the phone, you would miss them both.
Communication on the go is also just plain fun. BlackBerrys and iPhones are like toys: they feel good in the hand; we play with them; they make us smile. It’s what we all dreamed about as children when we attached two empty cans to a string and tried to talk to a friend in the next room.
But there is another side to this story. Human beings are hardwired to be curious and to connect and communicate. The problem is that in a world of limitless information and constant access to other people, we often don’t know when to stop.
There is a parallel with the obesity epidemic. Designed for a hunter-gatherer existence, our bodies are very efficient at storing excess calories as fat. Today, when calories are permanently on tap and there is less chance of burning them off by hunting and gathering, our waistlines are ballooning.
The same thing is happening with mobile communication. Just as we keep on eating even after our bodies have had enough food, we keep on texting, surfing and tweeting long after our minds are overloaded with information and stimulation.
Let’s be honest: many of us are hooked on the adrenalin rush delivered by communication technology, the visceral thrill we get when an email pings into our inbox. Last year, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry called for “internet addiction” to be officially recognized as a mental disorder.
That may be going too far, but mobile communication is clearly subject to the law of diminishing returns. When we stay electronically connected all the time, the deluge of messages and information takes a toll.
It can cause our IQ level to fall more than would smoking marijuana. It can also lock us into what a former Microsoft researcher called a state of “continuous partial attention” – constantly flitting from one conversation, one information stream, one stimulus to the next. Sound familiar?
The bottom line is that you cannot be truly “in the moment” when you’re juggling several moments at once. You cannot make the most of now when you turn “now” into a frenzy of multitasking.
Being “always on” transforms communication technology into a weapon of mass distraction. An estimated one in ten Britons has been hurt walking into a lamppost, rubbish bin, post box and other pedestrians while using a phone. To reduce these “walk and text” injuries, Brick Lane last year became the first street in London to wrap its lampposts with the sort of white padded cushions usually found on rugby goalposts.
Constant connection makes us chronically impatient. We come to expect everything to happen at the touch of a button – and get angry when it doesn’t. As the actress Carrie Fisher once quipped, these days “even instant gratification takes too long.”
Being “always on” also makes it hard to stop and stare, to smell the proverbial roses. We miss the details, the fine grain of the world around us when our eyes are glued to a screen. We lose the joy of discovering things on our own, or by chance, when we stick to routes prescribed by a GPS download. When travel involves firing off a stream of texts, tweets and audio-video footage to friends and family back home, we never completely immerse ourselves in a new place. Even as I lapped up the electronic dispatches from my friend in Brazil, part of me was thinking: “Why are you sitting in an Internet café instead of wandering round a street market? Why are you chronicling every twist and turn of your journey instead of living it?”
The truth is that communicating more does not always mean communicating better. In playgrounds across the world, you see parents using phones while spending “quality time” with their children. Surveys suggest that a fifth of us now interrupt sex to read an email or answer a call. Is that seizing the moment, or wasting it?
One of the cardinal rules of dating etiquette is to turn your cellphone off. Why? Because the best way to bond with someone is to give them your full and undivided attention. Reaching out to touch someone else at the same time sends all the wrong signals.
The other day, my neighbour, a multitasking marketing executive, lost her BlackBerry. Or thought she did. It turned out that her five-year-old daughter had hidden it. “I thought it would get you to listen to me when I talk,” explained the little girl.
This is the irony: that in a thoroughly wired world many of us end up feeling lonely and disconnected. A major survey found that between 1986 and 2006 the number of British teenagers who say they have no best friend in whom to confide rose from under one in eight to nearly one in five – and that at a time when any self-respecting teen boasts dozens, or even hundreds, of “friends” on his Facebook page.
Overdosing on mobile communication can also mess up the relationship we have with ourselves. Human beings need moments of silence and solitude – to rest and recharge; to think deeply and creatively; to look inside and confront the big questions: Who am I? How do I fit into the world? What is the meaning of life?
That isn’t likely to happen when your mind is constantly wondering if you have new email or if it’s time for a fresh tweet.
So where do we go from here? Are we doomed to a future of falling IQ, superficial relationships and walking into lampposts? I hope not.
Whenever a new technology comes along, it takes time to work out the cultural rules and protocols to get the most from it. Mobile communication is no exception: it is neither good nor bad; what matters is how we use it.
The challenge now is to find the discipline to deploy communication technology more judiciously. To switch on when it can bring us together and enrich our lives. But to switch off when old-fashioned, face-to-face communication – or even just a little of silence – is called for.
Already change is in the air. Big companies like Intel and Deloitte & Touche are experimenting with email-free days and letting staff switch off their phones. Members of the digital generation are telling pollsters that rather than working alone at home they want shared workspaces that combine face-to-face contact with screen-based communication.
Pressure to unplug is building beyond the office, too. Restaurants, bars and travel groups are banning mobiles. Technology-free carriages have appeared on trains in many countries. Like a drug rehab clinic, the Sheraton hotel in Chicago offers to lock guests’ cellphones in a safe to help them conquer their email addiction.
What all of these moves have in common is a desire to build a more measured relationship with mobile communication. To seize the moment, to make the most of now, by choosing when to log on and when to log off.
Can we do it? Can we strike this balance?
In the words of President Obama himself: Yes, we can.