It would be easy to presume that Paul Levy’s Digital Inferno is another ‘switch off your phone, you lazy oaf’ diatribe. Media headlines are full of hyperbole and always focus on the alleged decline of humanity to the digital age and the oncoming A.I apocalypse of Google robot warriors. While there was an academic article released today titled ‘Mourning the Loss of an Attention Span’, the Daily Telegraph concurrently reported on the claim that by 2050 more people would be having sex with robots than with each other (raise a glass, Battlestar Galactica fans).
Any discussion on technology and its impact has largely descended into acceptance that, ‘it’s there, what’s your point?’ (beautifully surmised by your writer staring at the screen and typing for half an hour). So all in all, it’s easy to forget that shrewd analysis exists beyond the sensationalism and sci-fi indulgence.
Paul Levy’s latest book is a necessary counter-balance. He doesn’t embark on a proselytising Luddite crusade beginning with ‘back in my day’. From the outset, he predicates his analysis with the acknowledgement that while technology is good and here to stay, we’ve never had a real discussion on how much it impacts on our lives and changes how we think.
With so many of us sitting static at computer screens at work all day and so many children now obese from sitting at consoles at home (for whom playing in the street is a memory) his prescriptions have the added advantage of being needed rather than speculative. People don’t sleep because the silent buzzing of their digital devices next to them keep them up all night. Relationships have morphed into public displays and passive aggressive exercises of ignominious renouncement on Facebook. Twitter has at once made us all accessible to each other but has also brought about the arrogant belief that distance and anonymity permit us to hurl abuse. Texting and WhatsApp have changed slang into the de facto English level of youngsters. This digital world isn’t so much living side by side with the real world as it is a full-blown occupation, with life the no man’s land between walking home on your phone and connecting to your WiFi.
Levy is a man of sound digital credentials: he was Head of Interaction at the Digital Workplace Group and the Intranet Benchmarking Forum for six years and has been a senior researcher at the Centre for Research in Innovation Management at the University of Brighton for over 20 years. He writes online regularly. At the time of writing the book he was 47 years old, a key analytical tool given he can recall a time when there was no internet, Wi-Fi, Facebook et all. At 27 I was born with one foot in the ‘digital age’ and can still recall dial-up. There are students of mine today who are on their phones, handy downs or not, at increasingly younger ages who simply cannot escape their contemporaries – Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have made peer engagement perennial and the risks of bullying more real.
Digital Inferno is a how-to guide of how to adapt to the digital age and to restore some semblance of a digital / real-world balance. Levy’s elucidating analysis examines the sociological, biological and psychological impact of being plugged in every moment of every day. His angle is totally common sense, and his book is special because it never descends into the abstractly theoretical or into the ideational, loaded projection of how he hopes the future will be. Rather, he roots his advice, and his logic, in humanist questions: What can make us happier? What can make us healthier, physically and mentally, when the digital world has and is encroaching so much upon our relationships and our own lives?
His argument is technology is now predominantly an opt-out occurrence. More of us not only use it but live entirely unaware of how this surrogate to real life not only imitates but diminishes real world interaction. The recurrent theme throughout the book is that if the Industrial Revolution transformed the world, including everything from industry, to politics to society, how is it we have become unaware that the Digital Revolution is doing the same to us now, and what can be done to fix this? We need to be consciously aware of technology, he argues, so we can structure our lives in a way that satisfies our technological need without losing our humanity.
From parenting advice to how to stay safe online, every quarter of the digital realm is covered by prose and research that is accessible and fascinating. Using examples and experiences of real people, including his own reflections, Levy is never patronising and builds a case from experience and the insight of many. It is a rare accomplishment of forgoing a proselytising lecture and focusing sincerely on the life coaching aspects of a very 21st-century problem. What Levy has successfully done is to push an avant-garde agenda for making digital analysis the umbrella, and not the sub-category, of sociology, philosophy and technology.
Ultimately, Levy has produced a book that can only ever be added to and never redacted. Technology and the digital sphere aren’t going anywhere and, if today’s headlines are anything to go by, are likely to generate increasing debate. Digital Inferno possesses then the rare gift of giving you help for something that you never knew you needed help with. Like Plato’s Cave, when you’re aware of the problem, it’s impossible to return to ignorance.
A must-read. Particularly if you’re reading this on your iPad.
‘Digital Inferno’ is available to buy here.