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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?