Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Our changing relationship with information- or why more isn't always better

On the top deck of the W3 today I watched a group of teenage girls photographing themselves on their phones- leaning in together with their best group-selfie poses, presumably prior to posting the resultant images on some social media site. I don't think there was any particular special occasion- it was lunchtime and they weren't especially dressed up- but they were obviously all well used to being photographed in this way. I was reminded of what photography meant to me when I was that age- how infrequently one was photographed and how awkward and embarrassed one felt when it happened. Most of my generation have kept hold of this self-consciousness in front of a camera, but I suspect our children's generation will be very different when they are our age.

I have written about the notion of the selfie as an existential act here but the point of this post is a much broader one, about our relationship with information about ourselves (and those we know) as a whole. The amount of information about those around us that is readily available has grown exponentially of recent years. When I was young, once someone was out of sight one knew virtually nothing about them until they returned. Phone contact was theoretically possible but generally extraordinarily infrequent by modern standards- you had to either be at home or find a payphone and have the required change. The person you phoned had to be there (no answerphones for most) and you had to rely on no one else wanting to make a long phone call at the same time. Photos were expensive and unreliable and anyway took days to develop (assuming you remembered to send them off). Letters were something of a palaver and far from instant. It is only twenty years or so since one used to hear announcements on Radio 4 inviting Fred Bloggs, last seen in the Winchester area, to contact their family about their mother who was 'dangerously ill.'

We knew next to nothing about each other's whereabouts or activities in real time and never questioned that lack of knowledge, because that was how it had always been. Our children's generation have grown up in a very different world. They expect to be kept informed in quite extraordinary detail about everything that is happening to virtually anyone they know and we (their parents) expect it of them too.

One's first reaction is that such ready and complete information about one's loved ones must be immensely reassuring. In the old days, when I set off to hitch from the Isle of Mull to Reading none of my family would have the faintest clue where I was until (if I remembered) I phoned them from my destination. Now our children would travel by train rather than hitching, and if that train was delayed by 20 minutes we would probably know about it instantly.

So has this led to greater levels of reassurance? OF COURSE NOT! Whoever coined the phrase 'ignorance is bliss' knew that well enough. Because if such detailed real-time information is theoretically available about those we know then when it fails to appear we immediately start to worry. If that child was due in to Reading at 18.15 and they haven't texted us by 18.35 to say they have arrived, well... Whereas in the old days if they set off on Monday you wouldn't start getting anxious about not hearing from them until at least Wednesday (or maybe that was just me).

The same thing applies more broadly to our social networks, I believe. It was not uncommon in the past to lose contact completely with people, simply because one changed schools or jobs, or moved out of the area. That is why Friends Reunited (remember them?) was formed. I can't see that happening in the same way to our children's generation though. They have come to expect extraordinarily frequent status updates- reminders and reinforcements of their friendships. And such low-grade social contact reinforces social bonds to a much greater and more disparate degree than ever happened in my day. So they are, to some extent at least, in touch with literally anyone whom they have ever met and still want to stay in touch with. Which means of course that people can't just 'lose touch' in the old way. So if someone hasn't made any contact of any sort (liking a Facebook post, tagging you, sending you a pm) in a period as short as say six months, then that must mean they simply don't want to be your friend anymore.

There is a connecting theme here, I believe. Information has come to be seen as a commodity- a need as basic as food and drink. Someone has even amended Maslow's heirarchy of human needs to include WiFi. However just because something is a basic need doesn't mean that the more of it you get the better. Take food for instance, and our current Western society's troubled relationship with it. And whilst lack of information leads to disempowerment and alienation from society, more information (after a certain point) emphatically does not lead to the opposite. Because information, like chocolate, can become psychologically addictive so that we binge on it and make ourselves unwell.

Perhaps that is an exaggeration, as things stand, but project forward just a little into the future. I can envisage a time when implantable sub-miniature sensors can provide us with a constant stream of real-time data about every important function of our body- blood pressure, heart-rate, blood sugar levels, even the levels of stress hormones. They will be popular I imagine, and sold as invaluable aids to maintaining a truly healthy lifestyle (on a minute-to-minute basis!) But can you imagine how unhealthily addictive such information might be? There are plenty in our society who are becoming neurotically health-obsessed as it is and this would take it to an entirely new level. And imagine if one of the implantable sensors failed- the blood pressure one for instance. What would that do to one's actual blood pressure?

And if that isn't a nightmarish enough thought, what about going one step further? What if implantable sensors could assess and feed back information about the functioning of one's brain itself? The state of one's mood; how negative one was feeling; whether one was falling prey to irrational thoughts. Ludicrous? Certainly. Impossible? Probably not.

The thing is of course that information once it exists cannot be destroyed. Not really. Not as long as someone wants to retain it. What can happen to it though is that it can be ignored. It seems a basic human desire to know more about the world around us. We are an inquisitive species- it is probably that as much as anything else that has led to our rapid development- but we can choose occasionally not to be inquisitive. Not to ask. Maybe even not to to want to know. It is getting increasingly hard, but it is possible. There are those in our children's generation who quite deliberately go "off grid." Who close their social media accounts, throw away their smartphones and resort to those ancient and inefficient means of gathering information about the world: their five senses.

And maybe they've got it right.

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