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The fully connected era: Are we suffering from overload?

The following is an extract from Julia Hobsbawm's book 'Fully Connected'

The very first cables of contemporary connectedness were laid in 1857, underwater between Newfoundland and Ireland: a core of copper wire, encased in gutta percha and ‘wrapped in jute yarn which had been soaked in a composition consisting of ⁵⁄₁₂ Stockholm tar, ⁵⁄₁₂ pitch, 1⁄₁₂ boiled linseed oil and 1⁄₁₂ common beeswax’. 

These early telegraph cables were the start of an era that led ultimately to all modern connected life: the telephone, the car, the railroad, the electric lightbulb, the aeroplane, the refrigerator and, of course, the computer.

The global technology giants that we now rely on to connect people or objects with each other – Google, Facebook, China Mobile, Delta Air Lines, Samsung, Amazon web services, AliBaba, LinkedIn, Twitter – are all direct descendants of the 19th century, not newly born in the 20th or 21st.

Today we have more opportunity to be connected than at any time in human history 

Mobile, social media and the internet – what the social scientists Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie call ‘The Triple Revolution’ – make up the background hum in every corner of the planet.

Today they are faster and more continuous than ever before, via an exploding mix of platforms and mediums. The World Economic Forum notes that, by 2020, there will be 50 billion connected devices in circulation. Welcome to the fully connected era.

On one level, we connect with each other in the modern world in much the same way as we ever did, with language, images and stories. "Our stories", asserts the writer Elif Shafak, "and therefore our destinies, are interconnected".

When Facebook officially reached over a billion users on a single day in 2015, its founder Mark Zuckerberg posted online, "It’s just the beginning of connecting the whole world". But how healthy or desirable is this, really?

In May We Be Forgiven, a contemporary novel, the character of George, a TV Network executive who commits mayhem and murder announces "I am ever aware, 24/7". There’s an edge of madness creeping in to all of this connection and it is called something: Overload.

Connection is like early industrialisation: the sweep of progress (from smartphone banking in Africa to wholesale revolutionary farm-to-table apps in China) nevertheless has its own belching factory smoke, its own unhealthy consequences. Humanity is beginning to choke on the fumes of excess.

Most of us lack a coping strategy or tangible tactics. We fall upon the idea of ‘digital detox’ or of temporary disconnection as if it is some kind of novelty, like being coated in seaweed at a health spa, and not an everyday routine.

It is almost impossible not to be fully connected in society today

Emails, texts, ‘feeds’ of news, mobile phones that are not ‘smart’ . . . the list goes on and on. We can no longer bank or board a plane or pay a bill without using connected technology.

We have entered an eery virtual era when almost everything exists electronically first: we pay with our ‘cashless’ card, are tracked via embedded apps, and absorb adverts that use algorithms which are beginning to second guess us far more accurately than we might like (although there are always comic and irritating exceptions).

Humans have been around a long time but we are now living cheek by jowl with another species entirely: technology.

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Where does all of this connectedness lead us? The advances and benefits of networked technology in the advanced and developing worlds cannot be overstated. Of course, I love being connected. I take it for granted. Don’t we all all?

Skyped medical consultations. Webinars. Conference calls. Sharing and posting clips from YouTube, or uploading documents to cloud-based document sharing apps such as Dropbox or Slack. Email, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Snapchat . . . the list is endless; so are the possibilities.

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Getting our information and relaying it to others in this way has become second nature.

Connection is movement, mobile. Nothing stands still, and nor do we

Technology companies sell us limitless possibility. Finite somehow equates to failure. The blue, blue sky of online storage always beckons. There may be convenience, the necessary thrill of innovation. There is also a radical reshaping of the way we live and work to factor in.

Despite the manifest benefits of this connected age – the medical, mechanical, cultural and commercial advances – it also exacerbates, complicates, accelerates and infiltrates our lives, creating more problems alongside the many solutions.

Our lives today are full of cognitive dissonance, all based around some of the tensions which happen when you put human beings, with their natural limits, in a computerised social world that is literally programmed to be without limit and never switched off.

Unlike computers, we do not have limitless storage, nor do we have unlimited time: we still only have 168 hours in the week, a number that has not changed fundamentally since the Sumerian calendar first began to express time in terms of cycles.

The 20 per cent of my time per week that is spent ‘managing’ my inbox, including having to look at the ‘clutter’ folder (which still manages to swallow emails I need; algorithms are actually no substitute for the human mind), feels like a necessary cost of modern living, even if the mind feels, as the 19th century romantic poet John Keats described his ‘teeming brain’, too full of things to express and too time-poor to get them all out, before "I cease to be".

Find me anyone working in an office, a school, a call centre, a warehouse, a parliamentary chamber, a public state frontline service, an NGO or a university who does not struggle with overload, who does not admit that much of daily life is not working well or indeed properly.

Individuals and institutions share many of the same problems: we are already full to capacity. We are fully connected. What next?

Fully Connected is published by Bloomsbury Publishing

Julia Hobsbawm spoke at an event at Nesta on 25 April.

Author

Julia Hobsbawm

Julia Hobsbawm has defined modern knowledge networking and created a system to teach individuals and organisations how to successfully navigate the Age of Overload: the system of Soc...