Terence Blacker: Weren't computers meant to liberate us?

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The Independent Online

Of the publication of silly surveys there is no end. To help us make sense of an increasingly frantic and fragmented world, publicity-minded academics and marketing experts eagerly supply a daily diet of research documents and studies, usually with some statistics to lend an air of fake seriousness to the whole thing. They rarely amount to anything more than one of those mildly interesting, well-I-never stories on a quiet news day.

But now and then a survey is published which, in its own absurd way, has a sort of perverse authority. Last week, an organisation called OTX announced that the current lever of high-tech multi-tasking had effectively allowed a person living a normal busy life in 2008 to gain seven hours of daily activity (it had done the maths) over the last decade.

Apparently, the majority of the 3,000 people interviewed for the survey come home from work and spend their evenings watching TV, texting, social networking on their laptops and talking – sometimes all at the same time. As a result, says the report, they are more effective than they would have been 10 years ago. In fact, to complete the same number of tasks before the dawning of the age of the gadget, a 31-hour day would be needed.

"People will be pushing the television remote while surfing on the wireless laptop computer on their knee, email and texting a friend on a mobile phone and holding a conversation with friends or spouse," Patrick Moriarty, the author of the survey, has said. These people "may be more mentally engaged than they are in the office".

I am almost sure that Moriarty and OTX ("committed to providing actionable consumer insights", according to its website) are claiming that these tragic characters with their restless, demented schedules have somehow been enriched by technology – that a day of multi-tasking, worth 31 hours in old time, is a great breakthrough for humanity.

But computers, surely, were meant to liberate modern man, not enslave him. Time-saving devices, we were promised, would allow us the leisure to enjoy more important things in life than a desperate skittering over its surface: talk, fun, music, love. Instead, the gadgets took over, replacing real pleasure, genuine communication, with a hectic, digitised version, an addiction to being busy, in touch, on the move.

When Moriarty talks of mental engagement, he is not referring to thought but to buzz, chat. The bustling slaves to technology, far from gaining seven hours' worth of extra daily life, have lost something more important. Social interaction has given way to grunts and pokes, Neanderthal noises, on an online networking site. Music, TV and conversation are no longer something to enjoy, but are merely part of the hubbub of background noise of daily life. People have become used to the madness in offices; now, it seems, they are so weirdly addicted that they willingly introduce it into their leisure time.

If OTX are looking for a new "actionable consumer insight", they might consider the strange and daring idea that connection to an item of technology is not synonymous with contentment; being plugged into two or three gadgets at the same time is not an expression of freedom, but dependence. To accelerate the mad merry-go-round of multi-tasking will not make people happier or more intelligent but more superficial, dissatisfied and resentful. If all that cutting-edge technology has made us less human, more computer-like, we might possibly have been better off in those days when only a fool would want to cram 31 hours of "tasks" into a day.

Spare the witches of Warboys!

The governors of a primary school in Cambridge have discovered, to their own satisfaction at least, what has caused poor inspection reports and disappointing recruitment of teachers.

It is witches. Warboys, the last village in England where witches were hanged, had as its school logo a figure on a broomstick with a pointy hat. Now it is to be rebranded on the grounds that it gives the school an off-putting image.

The children of Warboys are campaigning to retain this small connection to village history – and they are quite right.

Not for the first time in history, witches are being blamed for something which has nothing to do with them.

* When environmental issues are being discussed, one can reliably expect major emissions of self-serving nonsense to issue from politicians. All the same, it was a bit of a shaker to read a government minister's claim that the conurbation of Milton Keynes had ecologically improved on the countryside it had replaced.

Large towns can actually enhance the environment, the housing minister, Caroline Flint, said, arguing the case for eco-towns. "That's because they're actually managed green space, growing the plants and developing the bird life and what have you."

Here, in a soundbite, is the ultimate in human arrogance – a politician informing us that concreting over acres of countryside actually makes it greener because "bird life and what have you" can be developed.

The case for housing over landscape is open to argument, but the idea that "managed green space" in a town is better for the environment than open countryside is an insult to the intelligence.

terblacker@aol.com

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