Is the human race in danger of making itself extinct?

Technology has taken over our lives to an ominous degree

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The Independent Online

I’m writing this on a ferry from Holyhead to Dublin, and a charming elderly couple next to me are doing something that is very unusual – sitting and talking to each other.

They are not watching the many television screens dotted about the deck, offering hour after hour of mind-numbing detail from the Oscar Pistorius trial. They are not playing computer games, texting or listening to music. They have decided not to go and watch The Lego Movie in the cinema room.

My sociable neighbours are a dying breed. Last night, I spent five hours with my aunt and uncle in Llandudno. We talked, ate supper. The radio wasn’t on. No one phoned. Time spent like this is increasingly rare. Technology has taken over our lives to an ominous degree.

A new report from the telecom regulator Ofcom says that (for the first time) the amount of time each day we spend using modern media exceeds the amount of time we sleep. On average, we spend eight hours and 21 minutes asleep, and 20 minutes longer than that watching television, listening to the radio, texting, browsing the internet, using computers to work, play games or socialise, and on the phone.

Along with face-to-face conversation, sleep seems to be the loser in modern life. People email, text and tweet now instead of verbally communicating. Some even do three things at once – watching media, commenting on it simultaneously on Twitter, and messaging. Ugh! Ofcom reckons that six-year-olds know as much about technology as middle‑aged adults, and that 14 and 15‑year-olds spend 14 hours a day socially networking and texting. At this rate, in a couple of hundred years’ time, children will be born with atrophied voice boxes, fingers that have mutated into tech-friendly stumps. They will need lessons in how to talk. Writing will be a lost art.

Even now, after a couple of days at home writing on the computer and emailing, I have to make a conscious effort to telephone people or go shopping in order to have a spot of restorative human verbal interaction.

Sleep has become more elusive than finding a partner. Where are all these “average” people who get eight hours-plus? I’ve managed eight hours only once in the past year, and then only because I’d been up all night partying the night before. Like most people, I normally exist on six hours – that paltry amount chiselled away by late‑night tweeting or shopping when I return home after dinner or a movie. The problem with the internet is that it’s always open for business, and with television on demand, so is home entertainment. We can do anything we want at any time of the day or night, and yet the majority of couples say they’re “too tired” for sex. The truth is, they prefer modern media to sex. It doesn’t argue back or moan about your midriff bulge.

Is there a way to trade off technology downtime in return for sleep? Or will scientists devise a pill enabling us to manage on even less sleep, so we can spend even more time online? If so, God knows how we’ll be persuaded to procreate.



Public buildings must make the public comfortable, or die 

My relationship with the fashionable architect David Adjaye has been well documented. A few years ago he designed a home for me in Clerkenwell, one that functions better now that certain details have been “adjusted”.

I’m not a difficult client (believe it or not), but it took a lot of patience to make my house work. Even so, I was sorry to read that one of Mr Adjaye’s first public projects, the market building he designed for Wakefield in 2008, is to be closed and turned into an entertainment complex, in spite of a petition signed by 10,000 people who wanted it saved.

The building housed outdoor and indoor units and a food hall, but shoppers dwindled and last year it lost the council £193,000. Mr Adjaye’s market didn’t work primarily because customers didn’t visit – no matter how many fans might have signed a petition – and its demise mirrors that of similar markets in Sheffield and Preston.

These days shoppers might say they want variety and fun, but they want comfort, even if it means lack of choice. Borough Market in London and Kirkgate Market in Leeds are full of character, bustling and busy. Adjaye’s bold, minimal shed (he once said “buildings are deeply emotive structures”) was a step too far for cautious Wakefield, and not an architectural statement that was particularly user‑friendly in a grim Yorkshire winter. He’s now designing a block opposite London’s Ritz, where the locals might be more welcoming.

Pointing at fish on holiday? You’ll need the right shirt

The simple matter of choosing a holiday wardrobe can be a recipe for disaster, for all those politicians now on their summer breaks. They don’t want us to think they are well off, wasting money on having fun when many voters are scrimping to pay their bills. So David Cameron has just posed for his annual photocall – staring at a fish on a slab in Portugal, probably wondering if it looks more like Boris Johnson or Eric Pickles – wearing a navy polo shirt that looks suspiciously like the one he’s worn for many years, in Cornwall, the Med and the Canary Islands.

Actually, the 2014 model is new and the fashion police reckon it costs more than £100. Do I hear derisive sniggers? I don’t know many men who would pay that for a dreary, blue, cotton, short-sleeved shirt. I’m wearing a divine, white, stretchy denim skirt to play holiday tennis, and it cost only £14 in Sainsbury’s – so there.

Angela Merkel has gone even further in the austerity stakes – photographed wearing the same multicoloured kimono-sleeved silk top in 1996, 2002 and this week at a Mozart concert in Salzburg. The German Chancellor only ever wears the same distinctive, plain three-buttoned jacket (she has them in 30 colours) when she is at work, carefully creating a no-nonsense image every bit as powerful as that of Maggie Thatcher, with her Boudicca helmet hair and big handbag. Angela Merkel is undisputed Queen of Thrift. Cameron has a long way to go.

The rest of the UK does care what goes on in Scotland

Why do television bosses think people south of the border are not interested in Scotland’s referendum?

A few months ago I made a film for BBC Scotland, walking and talking to voters in three areas – the Borders, the central belt, and the north-east – about their voting intentions and how they felt independence might affect them. It was pretty well received, and I got good feedback. It was shown only in Scotland – to my annoyance, the BBC in London decided the rest of the country wouldn’t be interested.

The BBC subsequently screened another film made by Robert Peston. ITV took the same decision about this week’s debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, saying the programme was shown “in the areas where people had a vote”. On that basis, events in Gaza or Syria shouldn’t be on the news. What happens in Scotland affects the whole of the UK.