The TIME Trav­eller’s STRIFE

Olly Mann con­sid­ers the re­al­ity of life in an­other era, and de­cides he’s bet­ter off stay­ing put

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - First Person - IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY LAU­REN REBBECK

IF YOU COULD LIVE in one his­tor­i­cal era, which would you choose? Per­haps you’d be Vic­to­rian, at the van­guard of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion; or a Re­nais­sance artist, paint­ing pi­ous pic­tures of breasts; or even an ­An­cient, slaugh­ter­ing goats for Apollo en route to a packed per­for­mance of Antigone.

Not I. When­ever I’m chucked this din­ner party curve ball, my

re­sponse is iden­ti­cal: right now. Yep, of all eras of his­tory, I’d choose to live in the age of ‘Right Now’; de­spite our po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, our cul­ture of celebrity, our ‘freak­shakes’ and lam­i­nate floor­ing. Partly this is be­cause I know my fore­bears scratched a liv­ing in ghet­tos, so it’s hard to imag­ine my­self en­joy­ing an es­pe­cially at­trac­tive life­style in ye olden days. (My great-grand­fa­ther sup­pos­edly

re­marked, when ar­riv­ing from Rus­sia in the 1890s, that Bri­tain was great be­cause “no­body spits at you in the street”.)

But I’d also choose ‘Right Now’ be­cause this era is so ob­vi­ously, ev­i­dently, quan­tifi­ably bet­ter. Im­prove­ments in medicine are man­i­fold: we live longer, key­hole surgery is rou­tine, po­lio is ef­fec­tively erad­i­cated. Equal rights, ad­mit­tedly, are some­what a work-in-progress, but broadly speak­ing, most peo­ple have the right to work, re­side and vote as we please, re­gard­less of gen­der, sex­u­al­ity or eth­nic­ity.

Then, of course, there’s the mat­ter of tech­nol­ogy. In­for­ma­tion once avail­able for a four-fig­ure sum in dusty leather-bound en­cy­clopae­dias is now free, with a tap of a key­board or a click of a mouse. Ditto al­most all mu­sic and art. In­flu­en­tial thinkers, lead­ers and creatives are di­rectly con­tactable. Mo­bile com­mu­ni­ca­tion and cloud com­put­ing al­low us to man­age our work with­out be­ing chained to a desk so stay-at-home par­ents, the wheel­chair-bound and the un­em­ployed all have a bet­ter shot at en­trepreneur­ship. Even bud­get smart­phones now pro­vide pro­fes­sional-grade cam­eras, sat-navs, cal­cu­la­tors, mi­cro­phones, cal­en­dars and pagers... all for sub­stan­tially less than it once cost to buy such de­vices separately.

So, yeah: ‘Right Now’ is when I would choose to live. I have my reser­va­tions, as we all do, about the some­times scary-seem­ing world of AI ro­bots, self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles and cor­po­rate- con­trolled surveil­lance we’re be­queath­ing to our chil­dren, but I’m in­trigued, as each of these de­vel­op­ments ar­rive, to ac­tu­ally try them out. I’m a bit misty- eyed, as we all are, about pre-in­ter­net days when kids spent longer out­side, and Yel­low Pages ads ran at Christ­mas. But nos­tal­gia is partly a trick of the mind. My grandma claims Lon­don was nicer when she was a girl, in the 1940s – when ev­ery­one smoked, the smog was suf­fo­cat­ing, and she was evac­u­ated be­cause her house was bombed by Nazis.

How­ever, there’s a fly in the oint­ment and it’s this: the ef­fect that be­ing con­stantly con­nected is hav­ing on our brains. As Lau­rence Scott bril­liantly ex­plores in his 2015 book The Four-Di­men­sional Hu­man, the

I’M A BIT MISTY-EYED, AS WE ALL ARE, ABOUT PRE-IN­TER­NET DAYS WHEN KIDS SPENT

LONGER OUT­SIDE, AND YEL­LOW PAGES ADS RAN AT CHRIST­MAS. BUT NOS­TAL­GIA IS PARTLY A TRICK OF THE MIND

posts and com­ments we put up on so­cial me­dia don’t de­part our minds when we press ‘send’. In­stead, they can trig­ger a per­sis­tent, mild anx­i­ety.

So, as I go about my daily busi­ness in the three-di­men­sional ‘real world’, I crave an up­date on my sta­tus in the ‘fourth di­men­sion’ – my on­line per­sona. I’ll sit on the beach and ad­mire the sun­set, yet feel I haven’t fully en­joyed the ex­pe­ri­ence un­til I’ve shared it with strangers on In­sta­gram. I’ll pick up a news­pa­per on the train, and find my­self won­der­ing what Don­ald Trump’s tweeted since it went to press. I’ll feed my son his lunch on Wed­nes­day, and won­der why my aunt has not yet ‘liked’ the video I up­loaded of him eat­ing his lunch on Tues­day.

This, clearly, isn’t par­tic­u­larly healthy and, wor­ry­ingly, even the very peo­ple who de­signed this en­vi­ron­ment agree that it isn’t. Steve Jobs fa­mously didn’t let his own kids use iPads; cur­rent Ap­ple CEO Tim Cook ad­mits he won’t per­mit his nephew to use so­cial net­works. Loren Brichter, who in­vented Twit­ter’s ad­dic­tive pull-to-re­fresh fea­ture, has now re­moved no­ti­fi­ca­tions from his own phone.

The psy­cho­log­i­cal side ef­fects of so­cial me­dia aren’t side ef­fects at all – they’re the in­grained in­ten­tion of com­mer­cially-funded me­dia com­pa­nies. Es­sen­tially, the more time we spend us­ing their prod­ucts, the more ad­ver­tis­ing these com­pa­nies sell. As long as there’s no sub­stan­tive pro­gres­sion of that busi­ness model, our ad­dic­tion will con­tinue.

So, it’s no sur­prise to me that the boom we’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing in mo­bile tech­nol­ogy, these weapons of mass dis­trac­tion, has co­in­cided with a surge of in­ter­est in books about mind­ful­ness, med­i­ta­tion and si­lence. Tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion is out­pac­ing our own: we hu­mans feel in­nately un­set­tled if we don’t have pe­ri­ods of our lives when we stop, think, con­cen­trate and, yes, some­times be­come bored.

I adore tech­nol­ogy, but re­cently I’ve tried to cre­ate a few more phone-free mo­ments in my day. That way, rather than be­ing sucked into my time­line, I can pause to con­sider how I ac­tu­ally feel about the is­sues of the day. Such as, for ex­am­ple, which his­tor­i­cal era I’d most like to live in.

Hav­ing thought about it more, I’d still def­i­nitely choose ‘Right Now’.

IT’S NO SUR­PRISE THAT THE BOOM IN MO­BILE TECH­NOL­OGY, THESE WEAPONS OF MASS DIS­TRAC­TION,

HAS CO­IN­CIDED WITH A SURGE OF IN­TER­EST IN MIND­FUL­NESS, MED­I­TA­TION AND SI­LENCE

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