Lost on the information superhighway
It's coming up to the third hour of the working day when I find myself slowly scrolling through someone else's party photos and I realise that I have a problem. The computer, that great labour-saving device, has once more prevented me from doing a moment's work and I simply don't have the willpower to stop it. It begins with email. I have two computers – a laptop and a desktop – both set to check for messages every 15 minutes; if there's anything there, they will bleep, and if I'm away from my computer, my phone will bleep, vibrate and light up. Yet even 15 minutes is too long, and I've developed an absurd nervous tick of abandoning my work to click send/receive every two or three minutes. Why? What possible reason can there be for this constant checking? What am I hoping for?
A friend has a theory: it's a desire for good news. "You want someone to tell you that you're fantastic or that your life is about to ' change. It's insecurity." Maybe so, but I wish I could stop. What I really need is a device that emits a low-level electric shock or shouts "idiot". In its absence, I sit here clicking away, so that when an email does arrive, I leap on it with a squeal of gratitude, only to find that it's an out-of-office auto-reply. In consolation, I check my spam files, because God forbid an hour should pass without someone offering me cheap Viagra or a new way to satisfy my lady.
Then there's the browsing addiction. I have a cycle of websites that I can revolve through pretty much indefinitely; the Internet Movie Database, satirical US news site The Onion, Facebook of course (don't even get me started on Facebook), emusic, Amazon maybe, then back to IMDb. Each of the websites offers just enough new material to keep me coming back, and all of a sudden it's lunchtime. Without intending to, I've become an expert on weekend US box-office figures, charts and the latest trailers. My webmail home page offers me imbecilic showbiz "news", mindless advertorials informing me that Mariah Carey has a new album out or that a car has crashed on CCTV. This is news at its most salacious and dim-witted and objectionable and still I click away until somehow it's three in the afternoon. The anonymity of the web encourages a belligerence entirely unacceptable in real-life, so I know there's always a good punch-up going on somewhere. I find myself observing the heated debates like an onlooker at a pub brawl, and suddenly it is dark outside and another day has been wasted.
Of course, I've tried various techniques to crack the habit. I've removed bookmarks from the browser window, but this just means it takes longer to find what I need. I've thrown the browser shortcut into the trash, only to shamefacedly fish it out again 15 minutes later. I've turned off the broadband at the wall, but if I don't have wi-fi then I can't have music or radio, and what if there's an urgent email or I need to look up a word in the online dictionary? I've never smoked, but I wonder, is this what smoking's like?
Even away from my computer, I'm becoming twitchy and distracted. I was once able to read for hours on end without a thought of email or Facebook. Now I find myself reaching for my iPhone every three pages. Permanent access to an infinite amount of knowledge is making me stupid, and I now lack the concentration even to finish a book. With the advent of Spotify, the same thing has happened to music. A nominal sum gives me access to pretty much every piece of music I've ever wanted, but the choice has left me numb, frozen, slightly panicked and I'm sure I don't enjoy it as much as I once did. The contented hours I spent in dusty record shops tracking down obscure seven-inch singles seem bizarre now. The same music sits there, readily accessible to everyone at all times, and I can no longer be bothered to listen. Even movies represent a challenge to my attention span; simply to watch is no longer enough, and I now sit with IMDb by my side, looking up locations, trivia, the soundtrack, the name of the screenwriter, the director of photography. Holidays offer no relief. I'm ashamed to admit that I've found myself on mountainsides in areas of exquisite natural beauty, wondering whether there's a network available.
I am by profession a writer, and aren't writers meant to enter into a Zen-like trance state when they work? Not any more. My working day is accompanied by a constant tinnitus of bleeps and vibrations and notifications. Proust famously wrote in a cork-lined room, writing late at night to avoid distraction – naturally, you can find pictures of him doing so on the internet – but all the cork in the world won't keep out a wi-fi signal.
Of course, what makes this behaviour all the more idiotic is that it's entirely self-inflicted. Recently, I took a postcard, cut it into strips and made myself a small cardboard sign which I taped to the frame of my laptop's screen: "No email, no internet. Just write." For a while, it worked – but then I had to do some online banking, and maybe watch a movie trailer or two. I wonder what's number one at the US box office?
Now my technological desires have gone into reverse. I dream of a computer that has no internet or music or TV-on-demand – a typewriter, basically. Or how about a telephone that works only as a telephone? A portable paper device for storing numbers? Is there some sort of electronic contraption that plays one album at a time, with the tracks in the order that the artist intended? I'm sure someone somewhere must be working on these things.
Perhaps I'll go and look on the internet.
'One Day', by David Nicholls, is published by Hodder, priced £12.99
Technology gives my life an upgrade
I'm not big on gadgets. It really doesn't excite me that, for just £5, I could today own a Star Wars lightsaber keyring or, for £8, an electronic garlic crusher. I still take photographs on a 20-year-old Pentax with beautiful Kodachrome film, favour an Alpine mountain hike over a zero-emission Tesla ride, and have absolutely no opinion as to whether the Sony HT-IS100 speakers deliver a more rumbling sub-bass than the Teufel Columa 700. What I do care about is consumer technology that upgrades my quality of life. This is why I will happily lecture you with all the passion of a Speakers' Corner atheist about the transformative power of my iPhone 3GS, my Asics Gel Nimbus 10 running shoes, and the Spotify dashboard's user experience. It's all about using technology to live a richer, more experiential life.
In our ever more commoditised marketplace, we are getting consumer electronics products all wrong. Like the internet services ' that capture increasing chunks of our daily attention, they are not an end in themselves, there to covet as personal statements of identity. In the great scheme of things, it really is immaterial whether I favour the TomTom GO 940 LIVE over Garmin's Nüvi 1370T, or Facebook over Twitter. All that matters is that I end the day made more fulfilled, more socially connected, and more productive by the technology I've bought into. And if I examine honestly how I am interacting with my favourite tech kit, I really believe that I am.
Take my iPhone, for instance. This morning, I ran into work with it and monitored my progress using a free piece of software called RunKeeper. This "app" uses the phone's ability to track my movements using GPS in order to monitor my runs with remarkable accuracy. As well as showing me my route on a Google map, it tells me my journey time, pace, elevation and speed at any single point along the route. More than that, it makes it easy to measure my life in data, which in turn is changing my behaviour. The phone tells me, for instance, that since 7 July I have cut my time on the 4.19 mile route from 38 minutes 23 seconds to 34 minutes 33. So now I have accurate personal fitness targets, which I'm incredibly incentivised to keep improving.
Another app, from American National Public Radio, has vastly improved my media consumption. I no longer need cringe to some of the contrived debates increasingly favoured by the Today programme; instead, I can delight in Chicago Public Radio's This American Life or WFUV New York's morning show, simply by pressing a button. I'm reading Machiavelli on the Stanza iPhone app (surprisingly easy on the eyes, actually), watching TED conference videos whenever stuck on a train, and navigating my way around unfamiliar places using the phone's in-built compass and Google maps. Blitzed with information that I am increasingly forgetting, I now think of my phone as an extended personal memory. Again, behaviour- changing: no more worry in social situations about not recalling how exactly I know you. Oh, and did I mention it makes phone calls?
Nor do I buy the lazy argument that the internet is a morass of time-wasting viral videos and the social networks a poor substitute for human contact. Let's stop talking about "the internet" altogether – like air, it's increasingly just something that's all around us – and focus on how we are able to use its networking power to enhance our personal lifestyle choices. A flawed replacement for human contact? Tell that to the one in eight Americans married last year who met their partner via social media. A poor substitute for book- reading and face-to-face learning? Not if you consider the vast libraries of online lectures or freely available book downloads that demolish the old barriers to education (indeed, a US Department of Education study last year found that students learning online performed better than those learning from personal tuition). Twitter a meaningless fad? Not if you consider how it empowers all of us in shaping the news agenda, whether by holding brands to account for poor service, or challenging censorship by casting light on injustice.
In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow produced a now famous pyramid delineating the hierarchy of human needs, with basic physiological needs such as shelter at the bottom and "self-actualisation" at the top. To me, consumer technology is useful only in so far as it helps people – real, living people – rise up that pyramid towards the creative and spiritual fulfillment of which we are capable. And sharing experiences with my friends via our mobile devices, or filming my children on a tiny, convenient device, is undeniably taking me closer to that destination. It's an ever more connected world, where data gives us power. We should celebrate the new communications networks and the physical products that allow us to be more fulfilled people.
David Rowan is the editor of 'Wired' magazineReuse content