(2 MINUTE READ) Our connectivity to each other is changing in the age of the Internet and social media, reveals Julia Hobsbawn in her new book. Anton Constantinou says it may now be the time to disconnect.
Connections are what make the world go around. I'm connected, you're connected, and the computer systems we rely on thrive off them. The very fabric of our existence is built upon an intricate network of links.
I was fortunate to attend a talk of hers in on his very topic in May, at the Bloomsbury Institute in London, and felt compelled to write something in follow-up.
Having recently just finished this book, I've been left in no doubt as to the importance of connectivity. I am just as guilty as anyone else at overdosing on social media, to such extent that I often spend my evenings and train journeys flicking through posts and photos. So is it now time to stop?
Fragmented connections in the digital world
So to what end is this connectivity actually useful? As Julia points out, our online network of friends and associates is fragmented. The contacts in your email inbox most likely have little or no relation to your Instagram profile; the same goes for Facebook and Twitter. I've lost track of the number of times I've said I'll sit down and delete people on Facebook.
The truth is, I don't have time. And even if I did, I'd rather watch something on Netflix. The disparity between online friends and real-life one ones are vast: how many of us ever meet our Twitter followers or LinkedIn "colleagues"? Did Myspace co-founder, Tom Anderson, ever truly "reach out" to any of the million users he became friends with by default? All roads probably lead to the same answer -- no.
However, given the time we invest in our online lives, you'd naturally assume that more attention would be given to regulating them better.
Indeed, Julia's notion of ‘infobesity’ is a frightening and interesting one. It chiefly states that we're overdosing on internet consumption, without a solid structure in place for our social health. Sure, many of us leave computer work at the office, but a smartphone will often be the last thing we check before we go to sleep.
Unsurprisingly, the number of mental health sufferers in the world has risen sharply since the introduction of the internet.
Teenagers who once used to look into the mirror for validation of their self-worth are now bombarded with a minute-by-minute stream of deceptively crafted photos and videos which only heighten their insecurity. This fear of missing out (FOMO) which Julia touches upon can affect even the most sparing of internet users. One sniff of “selfiedom” and before you know it you're buying a selfie stick.
The Internet age
My question, after reading the book, is this: where would the world be without the internet?
Would professional networks as we know them cease to exist? Would fake news be a thing? Would online porn have taken off in quite the same way? One thing's for certain: we wouldn't have cyber-attacks. Nor for that matter would we be watching films on streaming sites. I struggle to remember a time when people didn't hide behind emails (namely because of my age), but that time did exist - and not so long ago.
Networking, these days, is all about connecting on a global scale, digitally. The more shares, likes and followers you have, the greater your value (at least, supposedly). It's precisely the reason why people become overnight celebrities on YouTube. It also goes to explain the increasing number of entrepreneurs in the world. And it's a great thing - you can literally carve out a career for yourself without ever leaving your home.
Gone are the days when relationship building was confined strictly to conference centres and boardrooms. If you can't make it to a meeting or an event, simply logon via Skype, or download a podcast/webinar.
Social media and disconnection
Ironically, this same technology which has brought us closer together has also put us at a distance, emotionally. Rather than chat-up one another at a bar, we now use dating apps; instead of giving someone a call, we send a WhatsApp.
Our social health, you might argue, has taken a bit of a battering of late from all the swiping, clicking and typing.
Take a look around you on a busy train and you'll struggle to find someone without their face buried in a phone. The truth is we're "drowning in own data", so much so that artificial intelligence (AI) presents a real danger to humanity. Robots have already replaced factory workers, security guards pharmacists and waiters, and it won't be long before creative jobs follow. Technology is becoming more pervasive in society than ever before.
Julia's solution to "peak connection", as she calls it, is disconnection.
It's about finding ways to switch off from machine-enabled networks, and reinvest in face-to-face networking.
One of the problems with networking today is our perception of it. Take away the "net" part of the word and all you're left with is "working": in other words, forced socialising in professional circles. Only if you’re super extrovert does networking ever feel like fun - it takes confidence and a considerable degree of superficiality to step into a room and start babbling with strangers.
For the introverts among us, who long for private, meaningful conversations, networking remains out of reach in a conference setting. Unless of course you opt for a smaller scale event.
“We should guard against large, one-size-fits-all events,” says Julia. She adds, “It is intimacy, trust, small-scale and real time connections, face-to-face, which forge lasting human networks, more than anything else.”
Connections lacking clarity
Suffice to say, our connections as humans are not to be overlooked. They're what separate us from animals and unite us through times of struggle. Notice how joined up people have become during recent atrocities like the Grenfell Tower disaster, Nice attack, Manchester bombing and nightclub shooting in Florida.
Once news of a big event hits social media, it spreads like wildfire, giving people the opportunity “check in” safely, share a thought or two publicly, and vent frustration on open and sympathetic ears.
On the flip side, big, clunky, disorganised networks, such as those in the public sector, do little to unite people. It’s precisely the reason why the NHS is such a mess, and government departments slow moving. Bureaucracy might not be the death of us, but it's damaging our interaction with the systems around us.
As we move forward and continue to search for meaning in the connections we make, there's a danger that the networks on which they operate might become convoluted and devoid of any real clarity. Were the internet to vanish overnight, you'd like to think that we'd return to a time where physical interaction was the norm. Where discussions are had around the dinner table, and family photos put up on the wall. But, until then, our only hope is to disconnect.
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