If an etiquette manual for the internet era were to be written, many pages would be devoted to the reasons why we shouldn't whip out a smartphone during a social gathering and start prodding, flicking and pinching the screen while absent-mindedly murmuring "yeah" to the people we were having a conversation with.
I'm as guilty of this as anyone, despite an acute awareness of how rude it is, but instead of putting the thing in my pocket I've taken to carrying on prodding while saying sorry at five-second intervals. That's probably even more annoying, not least because I'm obviously not that sorry at all. I take full responsibility for my errant social skills, but what makes me pursue information online so ravenously?
A piece this week by Emily Yoffe at Slate.com explores a sliver of the science behind our urge to check emails, Twitter feeds, or settle pub disputes by looking up the host nation of the 1952 OIympics or the plot synopsis of 'Titus Andronicus', rather than dredge up the information from our memory or – God forbid – leave the question hanging and not resolve it at all. According to Yoffe, studies done by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and psychologist Kent Berridge have both concluded that our strongest impulse – even more so than experiencing pleasure itself – is the one that makes us search and explore. That's what makes us get out of bed, go for a walk, or look up football scorelines on an iPhone. So, online trawls can be seen as the equivalent of a buzzing electrode in the brain of the lab rat. And the internet is constructed in such a way to keep us embroiled in a permanent voyage of discovery.
I remember in a pre-internet age when then-Radio 1 DJ Danny Baker conducted a phone-in competition to compile the entire list of characters in the children's cartoon 'Wacky Races'. Listeners were suspended in glorious ecstasy throughout a whole summer as the information slowly trickled in – but if that question cropped up at a picnic this weekend, mobile browser technology would let you reel off the answer in 30 seconds. And where's the fun in that? Maybe we should accept that this kind of hunger for information is a quirk of our brain chemistry, and do our best to resist it from time to time. After all, the information will be there later on. Our friends, however, will have gone home, rolling their eyes at our appalling behaviour.
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