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We live our lives on screen, but it could come at too high a price

I’m now a man in my thirties, yet can still find it hard to drag myself away from the screen towards the messy, risky business of human interactions
  • @TomChatfield

Sofia Coppola’s new movie, The Bling Ring, tells a true story for our times: how a glamorous young Hollywood gang stole millions of dollars by tracking celebrities’ movements online, then robbing their houses when they were out.

It’s a film loaded with images of hyper-mediated modernity – of constant texting, filming, social media sharing, and vicarious living through status updates. As Coppola commented in a recent interview, it also reflects an “almost sci-fi” view of the world, where “living does not count unless you are documenting it”.

On a planet where there will soon be as many mobile phones as people, Coppola’s comment reflects a growing unease with the intimacy of our relationships with technology. The average American teenager now sends and receives more than 3,000 text messages each month. Ever-accumulating data swirls beneath the surface of our lives. (IBM claims that 90 per cent of the world’s digital data was created within the past two years.) For many people, the first thing they touch when they wake in the morning – and the last thing they touch when they go to sleep at night – is the screen of their smartphone.

There’s much to celebrate in this, of course. Coppola’s adolescents may be drifters in the media maelstrom, but that doesn’t make them inherently different from previous generations, or mean that they deserve our pity. My own teenage years in the 1990s were a frequent agony of awkward silences and unexpressed desires: I would have given almost anything for the levelling convenience of a social life mediated on screen, or the opportunity to present myself to peers through text rather than just stammering small talk at parties.

Yet this appeal is also a central part of the problem – and I’m quietly relieved to have got through school and university before Facebook swept me up. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle puts it in her latest book, Alone Together: “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And, as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed.” The mix of constant articulacy and control on offer on screen is a staggering opportunity – and a staggering temptation.

I’m now a man in my thirties, yet can still find it hard to drag myself away from the screen towards the messy, risky business of human interactions. Even when I’ve done so, the constant connectivity of the world in my pocket breeds a strange doubleness: one part of my mind waiting for the buzz of incoming mail, the minute endorsement of a retweet, the thrill of connection. No matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing, I need never miss out or feel myself ignored. The only thing worse than being tweeted about, to paraphrase Wilde, is not being tweeted about.

As so often, these themes are as old as civilisation – but the arena within which they’re playing out is violently new. Weightless, infinitely and instantaneously reproducible, digital data girdles the globe like nothing before it, confronting our all-too-human attention spans with endless opportunity. There’s no limit to its capacities – and social media may soon be the least of our concerns.

Witness Google’s “Glass” technology. Essentially a voice-activated computer built into a pair of glasses, complete with discreet display at the edges of your vision, it’s due for commercial release in late 2013. It also promises to be the first in a sequence of wearable technologies aimed at ever-more seamlessly integrating our daily lives with their digital media shadows. Apple’s rumoured iWatch is in a similar vein, with still more startling prospects: live monitoring of heart rate and blood pressure; altitude sensors and GPS combined to position users precisely in three-dimensional space.

Like social media and the always-on screens of our smartphones, these technologies promise an unprecedented species of control over our own lives: everything from location to social reputation made explicit, measurable, and manipulable. Little wonder that merely material reality seems insubstantial by comparison: a dataless desert within which nothing is preserved or personalised, ripe for abandonment.

While information and control are the great promises of mediation, however, they come at a price, as The Bling Ring elegantly illustrates: a constantly broadcast identity is owned not by you, but by other people.

One of the film’s victims is the heiress and professional party girl Paris Hilton – a glittering cypher for her robbers’ dreams, and for the fantasies of countless others. (Her greatest claim to fame is probably a sex tape viewed by over seven million people in two days.) Celebrities, publicists and politicians have long understood the bargain that a life like Hilton’s embodies: “you” are whatever the world says you are, and your job is to feed grist to its mill. Today, though, we’re all being thrust into the same position: not only citizens, but also the full-time narrators, curators, publicists, ambassadors and agents of our own lives.

None of these is a role we’re obliged to take on, of course. But there’s much to be gained as well as lost – and much that we desperately wish to assert. Which of us doesn’t long for some kind of status, certainty or connection, for a way of thickening our best moments into permanence, or sharing what we love?

The world is what we make of it. But it’s also, as a generation is increasingly realising, what others and posterity choose to make of us: a bargain that some may only realise they’ve struck when it’s too late.

Tom Chatfield (@TomChatfield) is a British author and commentator on technology. His latest book is ‘Netymology’, published by Quercus