Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Life in the post-space age

I haven't been doing more than skimming the news over the last  few weeks, because so much of it has been so discouraging. But I did notice that somebody did a survey which generated headlines like this:
Net overload 'sparks digital detox for millions of Britons'
I'm not inclined to take these headlines at face value.

They hype something that's not particularly earth-shattering into sounding dramatic and important. The BBC article kicks off with the scary-sounding language of addiction ("59% of those surveyed considered themselves hooked on their devices"), before admitting that the survey doesn't really address the question of whether or not people are getting "hooked" and tuning into device junkies ("[experimental psychologist Andrew Przybylski] added that it was important to understand that the survey was not a study of internet addiction ... 'That is not a recognised psychiatric disorder'").

And what, exactly, does "detox?" mean here? If the concept of digital detox is as ill-defined and misleading as the notion of "detoxing" your body, probably nothing.

But the general idea that there is some kind of problem still sounds vaguely, anecdotally, plausible. "Detox" may be a nonsense word, but maybe people are spending too much time interacting with, or via, their devices (but how much time is "too much?"). I've sometimes had the guilty feeling that I've had too much screen time and could have been doing something more useful or fulfilling in the real world. Or inwardly tutted at a couple, family group, or bunch of friends sitting together, fixated on their individual devices, ignoring one another.

Perhaps the digital world really is so compelling that we're being diverted from important things by an overload of information, a lot of it trivial.

As a child of what we then called the Space Age, I can see how the volume of information, entertainment and communication has rocketed, since my formative years, spent with three channels on the black and white family TV, immobile phones tied to buildings or call boxes and a family music collection consisting of twenty or so vinyl discs, played on a Dansette mono record player. Maybe we've gained bandwidth, but also lost something valuable - after all, there was less distraction back then, so much more time for getting out and doing stuff in the real world. Less is more.

Maybe. But maybe, if Britain has a device problem, it's not the sort of problem being framed by all those moral-panicky "digital detox" headlines, with their implied individual battles against temptation (a virtous elect shunning the broad primrose path that leads to social media sin and clickbait damnation, in favour of the narrow, virtuous way of digital self-denial).

Let's think about this a different way. I mentioned what people had less of, back in the Space Age, in terms of entertainment and communication. I didn't say what many people had a lot more of - space. Never mind scare headines about some maybe-problem of individual digital self-indulgence; people in post-Space Age Britain have plenty of more plausible headlines and real problems to worry about:

Meet the young women beating the housing crisis by living in a van

This is a housing crisis, and without intervention it will bankrupt the welfare state

Rent rises with a week's notice: we can no longer afford our 'affordable' housing

Generation rent: young, married, pregnant and stuck in a house share 

London rents now a 'major risk' to UK economy

Millions to face affordable housing crisis

Home ownership in England at lowest level in 30 years as housing crisis grows

'Shoebox homes' become the UK norm

Our prime ministers aren’t building houses – that’s why there’s a crisis

I'm not suggesting that the Space Age was some kind of housing Utopia for everybody - it was the age of Cathy Come Home, too, but the cost of an average house wasn't quite such a crazy multiple of earnings, there was more social housing, rent controls were in the realm of thinkable policy and homes were, on average, bigger.*

Under these circumstances, maybe spending more time with your devices is a rational choice. You haven't got the personal space to invite a gang of your mates back to hang out at home, but hanging out together on line takes zero extra space. If you're pressed for space, you can't own so much stuff - maybe you don't have room for all the clobber that goes with many analogue pastimes. There are, however, digital substitutes - your record collection is now a bunch of MP3 files, or whatever. Your bookshelves are, for practical purposes, spaceless when they live inside your eReader. Video games (other than the WiiFit type) may not provide the exercise benefits of actual sports, but there's no sports kit to find room for.

Where smug boomers are embracing downsizing and decluttering as opportunities for humblebragging about how much stuff they could have, if only they weren't so totally not materialist ("I had so many things but they weren't making me happy - I feel so much freer now"), space-deprived Generation Rent is light on physical possessions out of sheer necessity.

We moralise about individual digital addiction in much the same way as we moralise about debt. Perhaps a more useful way to think about these things is in a structural way; when real wages are flat, but somebody needs to keep spending to keep the real economy on the road, debt is the substitute that keeps the wheels turning.

If you're not creating enough affordable space for people to live in, virtual space is a substitute that keeps the rabbit-hutch dwellers sane and allows them to tolerate a a system that isn't really working for them. The credit card allowed people to spend money they didn't have - networked digital devices allow them to enjoy personal space they don't have. To keep it classy, I'll end with a Shakespearian quote which sounds wierdly appropriate:
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2

*I'm not making the simple assumption that big homes always equate to more living space per head; a lot of Britain's big, old-fashioned houses were built to cram in big, old-fashioned families, but by Les Trente Glorieuses, with council house building peaking at 250,000 a year in the 1950s and the combined total of private and council house building peaking at 400,000 in the 1960s, I'm assuming that we really did have more space per capita, not just in absolute terms.