Anyone wanting to understand our digital world could do worse than take Ben Hammersley’s book 64 Things to the beach this summer. Instead of the usual idea entrepreneur approach (a scary title, an instruction to forget everything we thought we knew & a selective retelling of the evidence) the book takes us through a series interrelated ideas in bite-sized chapters and lets the reader come to their own conclusions. Urgent, witty and well argued Hammersley is an enthusiastic guide who refuses to fall into the cyber-utopian camp, remaining objective throughout.
As well explaining techie nuts and bolts like how messages are sent via the internet the book focuses more on the consequences of technology, its’ intended and unintended effects on behaviour. Some of the most compelling parts describe the political, social or media change resulting from our networked culture.
A unifying theme is that “…etiquette around usage lags way behind the technological capabilities”. We’re in the midst of profound technological shift and are still working out the right balance in many areas of our lives:
Where we live – early commentators assumed the internet would allow us to cut physical ties and work anywhere. As the chapters on the Rebirth of Distance and Spatial Fix explain encouraging people to remain in their separate units is actually a pretty conservative argument. People enjoy other people: “chat is a much higher bandwidth activity than we realised”. Ultimately “the internet augments real space, it doesn’t replace it”. The knowledge work of the twenty first century seems more effective in high density urban hubs. The post-war shift to suburban living doesn’t suit our new economy very well it seems. The planning response – clusters like East London’s Tech city recognises this.
How we interact with others – as we know it’s easier to voice extreme views online. Anonymity combined with a lack of social cues lead to the Online Disinhibition Effect. Hammersley suggests the ODE is so pervasive that the only way to maintain online discourse is by community moderation orcompelling posts to be linked to real life identities.
Being authors if our own record –The social networking revolution means we create huge data shadows. One interesting question posed is “is there such as thing as the right to privacy of one’s future self?”
Choosing how we use technology – perhaps our relationship with technology is not as linear as had been assumed. Instead of an ever closer relationship with technology, perhaps we’ll gain perspective and pick and choose more judiciously? Hammersley describes people going from “excited first contact with the basics of the networked environment, via exhilarating immersion in its complexity, to, increasingly a pared-back simplicity in their internet usage that allows them to live harmoniously with and on the new platform”.
Thought provoking stuff.