JU­LIA HOBSBAWM’S TECHNO SHABBAT

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - HI­LARY FREE­MAN IN­TER­VIEWS JU­LIA HOBSBAWM

IT’S NOT re­ally sur­pris­ing that Ju­lia Hobsbawm, the world’s first Pro­fes­sor in Net­work­ing, in­sists on an in-per­son in­ter­view, rather than a tele­phone chat. “It’s im­por­tant to meet face-to-face in the Face­book world,” she ex­plains. “It’s qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent. You want all of your senses in play to­gether, in­clud­ing your sixth sense, your in­tu­ition. For some reason, since we’ve had the in­ter­net, we’ve for­got­ten that in­stincts are usu­ally pretty strong.”

So I ar­range to meet her at the Jewish Museum in Camden (where she’s just been ap­pointed to the board) to talk about her new book, Fully Con­nected, Sur­viv­ing and Thriv­ing in an Age of Overload, which ex­am­ines the im­pact of the in­ter­net age on both our per­sonal and pro­fes­sional lives. Hobsbawm be­lieves that we are all drown­ing in data and dead­lines, and that our cur­rent ways of work­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing have led to the equiv­a­lent of a health cri­sis.

The prob­lem, she says, is that we don’t yet have a blue­print for how to cope with be­ing “fully con­nected” to ma­chines. We need to re­de­fine our un­der­stand­ing of “so­cial health” — which has changed markedly since the WHO de­fined health in 1946 — and de­vise a “fit­ness plan” to en­sure we sur­vive and re­main pro­duc­tive.

“In 150 years, hu­man be­ings have moved from sud­denly be­ing con­nected to rail roads and sea net­works to this mo­ment where we are con­nected all the time to so­cial me­dia and mo­bile phones and the In­ter­net. This has put us un­der im­mense pres­sure, both psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal,” she ex­plains. “We don’t con­trol our cal­en­dars or our di­aries any more, like we con­trol our bod­ies. But we need to take our con­nect­ed­ness as se­ri­ously as we do our health.”

The idea for the book came about 10 years ago, when she ex­pe­ri­enced a se­ri­ous health scare, almost dy­ing from pneu­mo­nia

and sep­ti­caemia. “I knew I needed to make some changes in my life­style. I also re­alised that my fall­ing ill was very linked to be­ing hyper con­nected — al­ways on, al­ways rush­ing around. Around 10 mil­lion work­ing days are lost to stress ev­ery year. Tech­nol­ogy is like an­other species that we’re liv­ing cheek-by-jowl with — an an­i­mal that can bite you quite hard if you’re not care­ful.”

Her per­sonal an­swer to the stress of be­ing “al­ways con­nected” to is to take what she calls “Techno Shab­bats” — sched­uled times when she dis­con­nects from the in­ter­net, puts away her phone, and in­stead reads or spends time with her fam­ily. Her book is lit­tered with Jewish metaphors and ref­er­ences (she writes about shid­duchs, for ex­am­ple, and the di­as­pora), so it’s not sur­pris­ing to learn that the pe­riod she spent writ­ing the book co­in­cided with an awak­en­ing of her Jewish iden­tity.

The daugh­ter of the late Marx­ist his­to­rian, Eric Hobsbawm, Ju­lia did not even know that she was Jewish un­til the TV se­ries Holo­caust was broad­cast in 1978, by which time she was 14 years old. “When I was grow­ing up there was ab­so­lutely no ob­ser­vance of any kind. My fam­ily prin­ci­pally came over from Vi­enna, be­fore Kristall­nacht, and they re­garded them­selves not as refugees but as émi­grés. Be­ing Jewish in those years was po­lar­is­ing; you were ei­ther in the com­mu­nity or you weren’t. We weren’t.

“And yet, when my el­dest son (Ro­man, now 18) was born, there were the stir­rings of some­thing, and I felt ab­so­lutely com­pelled to an­nounce his birth in the JC. And when we got mar­ried in 2004, we asked Rabbi Ju­lia Neu­berger to say the bless­ing. Then, when Dad died in 2012, de­spite rather fa­mously not em­brac­ing his Jewish iden­tity dur­ing his life­time, it turned out he had one very clear stip­u­la­tion about his fu­neral, and that was that Kad­dish would be said. It was in­cred­i­bly mov­ing. And at that defin­ing mo­ment you are Jewish.”

Ju­lia says that since turn­ing 50, three years ago, her iden­tity as a Jewish woman has be­come much more im­por­tant to her. “I’d be ly­ing if I said I have any in­ten­tion of be­com­ing a prop­erly ob­ser­vant Jew. I don’t know one end of a meno­rah from the other. But I think a won­der­ful clar­ity hap­pens to you as you be­come mid­dleaged. The form and pat­tern of Jewish life, the rhythms and rou­tine of rit­ual, be­come more in­ter­est­ing and com­pelling to me.’’

For the first time in her life, she has started to go to shul — to the West Lon­don Syn­a­gogue — on High Holy Days.

“I thought: ‘If I died to­mor­row, they’d say three things about me. They’d say who my fa­ther was, they might say what I did for a liv­ing and they’d say I was Jewish. I know I’m iden­ti­fied as be­ing Jewish, and I thought it was about time I owned that iden­tity.

“I feel that the pe­riod of time in which I clar­i­fied my think­ing about the ideas in the book co­in­cided with my re­al­is­ing that it’s OK to feel com­pli­cated and be Jewish. You don’t have to be holy, or re­li­gious, or hold a par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal view to be in the Jewish com­mu­nity. I’ve re­alised I can be Jewish as an in­di­vid­ual and not con­form to any­one else’s stereo­type.”

A prom­i­nent en­tre­pre­neur, me­dia com­men­ta­tor and in­ter­na­tional speaker as well as Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor at Cass Busi­ness School, Hobsbawm was awarded an OBE in 2015. She says net­work­ing is not just, as peo­ple of­ten be­lieve, about go­ing to lots of par­ties and hand­ing out busi­ness cards. It’s about mak­ing mean­ing­ful con­nec­tions, about shar­ing knowl­edge and about so­cial health and mo­bil­ity.

She ded­i­cates her book to her grand­mother Lily, “the finest sa­lon­nière in St John’s Wood, and be­fore that, Vi­enna. She used to have th­ese gor­geous gath­er­ings of rel­a­tives and friends. I sup­pose it’s in the blood.”

But while she ac­knowl­edges that Jews are gen­er­ally good at net­work­ing, she cau­tions against the in­su­lar­ity of the Jewish world. “The Jewish com­mu­nity is well­net­worked in and of it­self, good at talk­ing to it­self. But I know from the net­work sci­ence that I’ve stud­ied and writ­ten about that a so­ci­ety is much, much health­ier if it has wider and more di­verse net­works.”

‘Fully Con­nected: Sur­viv­ing and Thriv­ing in an Age of Overload’, by Ju­lia Hobsbawm, is pub­lished by Blooms­bury

I just had to an­nounce my baby’s birth in the JC

Net­work­ing pro­fes­sor Ju­lia Hobsbawm takes ‘Techno Shab­bats’ to com­bat stress

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