Tom Chatfield discusses his Digital Reflections
As a writer, commentator and consultant, Tom Chatfield often finds himself giving talks on the challenges of the digital age. Having recently spoken at London’s Southbank Centre on the topic of “Digital Reflections”, Samuel Fry asked him about his relationship with technology.
You recently gave a talk on “Digital Reflections” at Southbank Centre. What was the talk about?
I was looking at some of our daily relationships with technology – and how these relationships can shape how we think and feel. Many of us have an incredibly intimate relationship with our phones, for example. They are the first objects we touch when we wake in the morning, the last objects we touch when we go to sleep at night; they are always with us, bringing with them many of the things we care about most. Much of the time, this is great. But I worry that if we have an unexamined relationship with tools like our phones, we risk developing a distorted sense of ourselves; of being excessively influenced by our onscreen reflections and projections.
I struggle with this myself. I get anxious if people don’t reply to my emails or texts fast enough; I feel like I’m missing out, or like my life is inadequate, when I scroll through other people’s timelines; I risk turning every moment of every day into the same kind of time, because I always have the same options available onscreen with me. I risk living in a kind of technological bubble – and of being seduced by how cosy and connected it feels in there. And so I try not to react by violently opposing technology, but instead to put it in perspective; to use and experience it differently; to build different kinds of time and space into my life.
Why does this topic matter?
When I talk to people about technology, again and again the themes of time, attention and identity seem to come up. We are changed by the tools we use – the other people we encounter are too – and I think much of the time we struggle as a society to keep up with the pace of change brought by technology. People desperately want to know: are phones good or bad; is Google making me stupid; am I being spied on right now, or risking having my identity stolen? Technology is the focus of an extraordinary amount of everyday anxiety, partly because more and more of the things we do entail digital devices, and play out at least in part onscreen.
What I want to do is suggest some useful ways of engaging with this anxiety without resorting to either condemning or praising technology, or indeed treating it like one huge, inevitable thing. We need to be able to talk carefully about our relationship with digital devices and services, to engage critically, and to realize that there is no such thing as a neutral tool: that everything is a matter of negotiation and compromise.
In this talk, you coin the phrase “digital discernment”. How would you describe this?
I sometimes use another phase to describe this same idea, which I think was originated by the writer Kevin Kelly: becoming a “digital gourmet.” In each case, the point is that if you want to get the most out of something, you don’t just uncritically stuff your face with it. You are selective, you try to make informed choices, you say “no” as well as “yes.” If you love food, you don’t just cram chips into your mouth all day; you seek out different kinds of food, different meals, different experiences. If you love technology and its possibilities, you are selective; you embrace variety; you ask what it means to get the most out of something like Facebook, rather than just clicking “like” five thousand times a day; you use other sites and services too. And of course a large part of doing this is seeking out others’ opinions, trying to become better informed – and examining your own habits honestly.
How did the audience respond to the topic?
I hope that they enjoyed it, and that it helped at least some people think about technology in a useful new way. At one point, I asked people to suggest what kind of thing they are better at when they are “unplugged”: when the phone and tablet and computer are off, and they are strolling around in the state that used to be known as normal, but that now has to be specially sought out. One person suggested “coming up with plots for short stories,” which I thought was a lovely answer, and not just because it was specific, but because it captured precisely the kind of imaginative ownership that only tends to come when you have uninterrupted mental space – the freedom to let your mind wander, to let memories and ideas percolate, rather than having constant inputs or the possibility of someone contacting you. It’s an example I may well borrow for future talks; and there was lots more great stuff said, which leads me to hope that at least some people were receptive and engaged!
What do you think our biggest challenges are in the digital age?
Technological momentum is a huge issue. On the one hand, the pace of change feels incredibly fast. On the other hand, once a particular system or way of thinking or working has been enshrined in software or hardware, it can be incredibly difficult to alter it – or even to remember that there are other ways of thinking and working. Email is one system like this, and it generates a huge amount of waste and unhappy working practices alongside its benefits; but it’s far from the worst or most sinister. A totalizing system of sales and distribution, like Amazon’s, is pretty scary, not least because there are so many compelling reasons for using it as a consumer – choice, affordability, ease, reliability – and yet the ultimate result of everyone using it may be the destruction of plenty of things users don’t want to see destroyed (publishers, bookshops, local businesses; any rivals unable to operate at the same awesome scale and efficiency).
Once you mix momentum with network effects and scalability, it can get really alarming. With digital technologies, a handful of companies can control dominant underlying systems to degree that has rarely been possible before: Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, a few others globally. I don’t believe these are evil companies – much that they do is immensely impressive – but the kind of influence they wield by owning the systems on which so much other activity takes place is huge, and not susceptible to many standard assumptions about choice and competition. Not to mention the fact that unseen consequences tend to proliferate around technology as it scales up.
For many people, it can feel like they have little practical freedom to choose alternatives to this handful of key players; power and convenience and affordability have simply too great a gravitational pull. For someone trying to preach the virtues of making informed choices, all this is discomforting. Then again, I would argue that the most crucial battle to be won is often the first: making people realize that there is some kind of choice to be made, and that each choice has its consequences, both for them individually and for the society they are living in. You can’t afford to lose faith in people’s capacity to choose.
Tom Chatfield (@TomChatfield) is a British writer and commentator. He is the author of five books exploring digital culture – most recently How to Thrive in the Digital Age (Pan Macmillan) and Netymology (Quercus) and his work has appeared in over twenty territories and languages. Find out more about him on tomchatfield.net.