Digital dependency has pulled in a generation. We're not addicted to drugs or sex anymore, it's wifi connection that gets us high. Oscar Quine considers Generation Now, the twenty-somethings who grew up with technology and start to combust without it.
One Saturday, a week or so ago, a friend invited me to dinner. There were five of us and, having eaten, we were stumped as to what to do next. Not that we didn’t have any options, of course; but rather too many. We sat around the table, tapping at phones in broken silence. Facebook invites and group texts all said the same: this pub, that club, party etc. And nothing was even approaching just quite right.
This inertia soon resolved itself in the way that inertia tends to: with more inertia. Soon the clock had struck 12, we were six bottles in and with each glass the options were propelled away further and further, like stars in distant galaxies. The vino began to tap the brakes of conversation. A friend picked at the corner of a label of a wine bottle. A universal truth shone through: if we were going to make a big night in of it, music was needed. Except - shock, horror - the internet was down.
She, the host, begun to dig through a nest of cables and pens in a long-forgotten drawer. I lay back hard on the bed. The cat sidled up and slid its head under my hand and arched its neck. Then she, the host, found it: an ipod. Silver, scratch-faced. No connectivity, no wifi capability, just music. She fumbled for a bit, trying to switch it on.
The jack went in with a crackle and she, the host, muttered, "This hasn’t been updated in forever". First up: the Count & Sinden, Beeper, and a wit in the corner said, "2008 called, it wants its music back". As the song bounced and squelched, I thumb-rolled through the tracklist. Squat like a stone in the hand, the tiny screen into which I peered - glowing, small - seemed both constraining and demanding: up and down only, no touching. I remembered having to bury a time capsule at school and, standing there bored, staring into the dark hole, wondering if anyone would ever dig it up. I felt a similar claustrophobia, looking at that screen. Only 508 songs apparently, and before long, I’d hit rock bottom: Zoomin by Lionel Richie (ironic, surely...).
I wanted more and I wanted it now. It’s a feeling I’m sure the modern reader is familiar with. It spills and slops into all corners of life. We are Generation Now. Constant updates, instant downloads; if a computer freezes or doesn’t do what it’s meant to, our knee-jerk response is invariably a cold shot of anger. Why is this thing that’s meant to be making my life easier, and which is solely dependent on me for its existence - who else is going to hit the on button and wiggle the mouse? – why is it not working? Why is it causing me this massive, seemingly unresolvable, inconvenience? But really, the truth of it is, it’s an anger of panicked powerlessness: like a child whose hand has slipped from that of its guardian out in the heaving crowd of the big, wide world.
"You see, we don’t really need knowledge anymore, just knowledge of access to knowledge."
As I thumb-rolled back to the top of that late-noughties list - songs just out of the reach of the tide of novelty re-listening - trying to remember what was good and what was not, the dilemma of remembering in itself felt dated. You see, we don’t really need knowledge anymore, just knowledge of access to knowledge. How best can I phrase that for Google to return what I want? Where did I save that note? Which email has that phone number in? It’s a change that’s happening fast, and Ouroboros-like. (Tricky word. Google it? I had to. Does it spark memories of Snake II, anyone?).
All the way back in 1971, Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon warned: "What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." As we become more and more reliant on easily searchable knowledge, our memory retracts. Do you find it harder to stay with one book, or on one browser tab until the bitter end? Are you this far down the article? (TL;DR, apparently, is a recognised acronym for 'too long; didn’t read', which can be found sprinkled across the comment sections of the internet) If you’re still with me, you’re bucking the trend. Do hang around, it’s just getting good.
The thing is, technology expands at such a ludicrously fast rate. And with it, almost wholesale, we’ve begun to interact with the physical world completely differently. Each year, new words tumble into the dictionary: selfie, phablet, Bitcoin at the last entry. We scramble for a vocab to understand the vast new expanse of the web, usually grabbing words from the physical world: address, bookmark, bug, the cloud. But the truth of the matter is we are yet to conceptualise the internet satisfactorily: it just looms, out there, above us, somewhere (in the cracks?); steely and static. The collective conscience is far from understanding this shiny new space. But you can bet, it will continue to be a two-way experience. An interesting part of this interplay between the physical and digital worlds is what’s known as the 'Extended Mind Thesis'. The philosophers, neuro-scientists, and the like, behind it argue that phones, computers and other devices on to which we unload memory and mental functions are extensions of our mind. And with Google glasses, and talk of internal computer chips to come, this idea may soon be more widely held.
"The deconstructed dinner: for those who can’t decide and certainly cannot wait."
This digital mind meld has its upsides. With a universe of inspiration and access at our fingertips, we’re less bound by old ideas. We can know near-anything pretty much instantly, and are closer to expressing ourselves however we wish. Not just with what we tweet, but with physical things too, like what we wear. Across popular culture, distinctions of seasons and tribes have been washed away. I’m convinced this diffusion of concentration and form lies behind the rise of sharing plates in restaurants in place of the three-course meal (The deconstructed dinner: for those who can’t decide and certainly cannot wait.), and, I believe, that’s nothing but a good thing.
By this point, we’d polished off bottle number eight and my mind started to wane. As Wiley blared, I thought perhaps, really, we should have gone out. I lie back on the bed and the colour drains and I realise, surprise surprise, I’ve drunk too much and I can’t keep up. According to one estimate our brain takes in 5.8gb of data a second, don’t you know, and I think it’s safe to say wine doesn’t help with the buffering speed. The room slips, spins. I imagine life like a game of Tetris and the blocks keep falling and I’m just not quick enough to line them up. Then she, the host, lies down on the bed next to me and puts her hand on my shoulder and asks, "What have you been thinking about?" "Not much," I say. "Then stop moping, get up and dance."