Digital world – full of opportunity or an anti-social phenomenon
‘Digital Inferno’ by Paul Levy attempts to find the middle ground between polar views on digital technology
When it comes to discussion of the all-pervasiveness of the digital world, opinions tend to divide sharply. Some see the digital realm as a world full of opportunity, possibility and progress.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who view it as an invasive, attention-sapping, anti-social phenomenon that threatens civilisation as we have known it. In Digital Inferno, British academic and writer Paul Levy attempts to find a middle ground between these polar views.
His main premise is that we need to be aware of how technology is affecting us personally and how it is developing faster than our ability to cope with it.
The book is aimed he says at those who spend 40 hours a week on social media, read their texts instead of kissing their partners goodnight and who don’t give their kids attention because they prioritise giving attention to tweets – people in the “first level of hell”, as it puts it.
Levy is no Luddite. His “day job” is as a senior research fellow of the Centre for Research in Innovation Management at the University of Brighton, he has written several books on innovation and technology and he is founder of the digital publication FringeReview.
He has a very well-developed scepticism about the digital world, however. He describes it as huge market of time-using escapism.
Artificial virtual worlds are offered up to us on a plate and they lock too many of us into repetitive and mediocre experiences, he says.
The digital world has much to offer but we need to be awake to it and to be in charge. That is a far better experience than sleepy surrender to it.
“We haven’t even sketched out the adjustments that we need to make and it is time we did or soon we’ll find that the digital world is making us ill,” he warns. “We will need to make even greater adjustments as newer technologies descend on us or we’ll be encased in technology.”
Human imagination should ultimately trump the machine.
It is the product of our growth, our chaos and our fear, our subtlety and our nuance, of the alchemy of mortal flesh and transcendent dreaming. We are set apart from the computer’s mimicry by one thing – our clumsiness.
It follows therefore that Ideas and value are found in exploring ambiguity, humour and metaphor, rather than being merely prisoners of binary logic, as machines are. Levy goes further by suggesting a form of digital exorcism may be in order for those who have overindulged or become overly attached to their devices.
Enforced digital breaks are a good way to regain control and should be practiced, he advises.
The notion of detachment is a recurring theme as the book develops. Levy talks about the idea of placement, allowing tools such as mobile phones to have their place in our lives – both physically and metaphorically.
Analogies are drawn with craftworkers from Middle Age guilds. Paintings and etchings show these craftsmen and women sitting at a workbench or table, leaning forward over the work. One can detect the control as well as the separation between the workers and the tool.
Apprentices were taught the importance of the placement of each tool. They were cleaned and placed back on their shelves at the end of the day. While there was a “oneness” with the tool, which became an extension of the craftsperson, there was also a separation.
Levy also explores the boundaries of the digital realm for children. One of the best resources for managing the digital challenge in family life is family life itself, he ventures.
Children, he says, need to grow up in families whose eating, sleeping and waking-up times follow a rhythm and in which the thoughts, feelings and tastes of the parents quietly express what they look up to in life.
There is a happy medium between being digital dinosaurs and addicts, he concludes, in a well-written, if at times overly preachy, treatment of this subject.
Ultimately, he observes, the relationship we have with the digital realm is a contradictory one. We celebrate the launch of a new smartphone as a significant global event while at the same time bemoaning our loss of privacy and ritually loving to hate Facebook. Being aware of the influence of technology and harnessing it for our own needs – rather than being a dumb servant of it – is the key.