Here in the United States an ostentatious number of information and communication tools are jammed into the typical connected household and workspace – laptops, desktops, mobile phones, Skype, netbooks, iPods, iPads, fax machines, email, Facebook, video conferencing software, digital cameras, and TVs. These applications and devices affect many parts of daily life, including our experiences of time and distance. For example, a mobile phone allows an office worker to let his colleague know he’s running late; a parent uses a digital camera to take a snapshot of her daughter to email to her mother overseas; and music on a teenager’s mp3 player makes the bus ride to school seem faster.

This digital culture exists, to varying extents, in most of the Western world as well as among the middle class and elites of the so-called developing nations, such as China, and, particularly India. Even in countries where the majority of citizens do not have access to a great variety of information and communication technologies (ICTs), they often play a role in creating this culture – by, for instance, manufacturing computer motherboards, mining minerals for mobile phones, or sorting through digital trash to glean anything that may be left of value from old electronics. And, ‘digital outsiders’ are fast becoming integrated, as the last digital-free zones adopt mobile phones and netbooks.

There is a pervasive belief that this ‘digital life’ is the future: that as time goes on the whole world will become increasingly plugged-in, hooked-up, and tech-savvy. National governments frequently compete to raise the level of their citizens’ connectivity, the computer literacy of their youth, and the nation’s attractiveness to the tech manufacturing and development sector. To be “on the wrong side of the digital divide” is to be in the dark, disadvantaged, backwards, slow, and left out. We seem to be rushing, laptops and mice outstretched into a world that will, if we “succeed”, bring us all the happiness and efficiency of digital lives.

With a simple click, click, click of a computer keyboard we can accomplish amazing feats: order a rare book from Hong Kong that will show up on your door step in London in less than two weeks, look-up the entire history of the Swedish royal family including its intimate connection with Napoleon from your own home, or perform a complex engineering calculation in seconds that would take hours to do by hand. While we have many things to be in awe of, at the same time, there is a growing discomfort, among people I know, in news articles, from snippets of overheard conversation on the afternoon subway.

An old friend told me recently that he feels depressed when he’s at home because he and his wife spend most of their time in front of their computers, puttering away at extra work, cropping photos, or reading the news. A woman I met was so tired of all her emailing that she purposed “forgot” her laptop and phone at home before her two-week vacation, but went into withdrawal about halfway through and regretted it. On the radio I heard a short interview with a man who likened today’s “digital slavery” (our constant use of digital devices and resulting sedentary lifestyles, headaches, loneliness, eye pain, and wrist problems) with the “industrial slavery” of factory life.

At the very least we can say that digital living isn’t utopia. Like with everything there are pros, and cons, ups and downs, winners and losers, emotions, sex, heartache, spirit (or lack of it) and the general messiness of life. Is this the future we want? If so, perhaps we should explore its current manifestations more carefully. We know that the industrial revolution vastly impacted our sense of time and the organization of life, yet what is the effect of the digital one? What is daily life like in the places and communities in the world where digital culture is the strongest? What do we do with the time we ‘save’ by using digital technologies? What is the effect of the information economy –not on the
number of jobs created or the educational goals attained or missed – but rather on our daily rhythms?

Advertisements