The excellent BBC documentary, The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs, threw up a couple of interesting and depressing statistics. According to the programmes, if my memory serves me correctly, prescription of anti-depressants and painkillers have both increased in the UK by 50% in the last decade. These are truly staggering statistics. The programmes followed a doctor who is convinced that such widespread prescription is not only pointless but, owing to side effects, very detrimental to long-term health. The programmes pointed out that somewhere in the region of a quarter of the population is in chronic pain.
This programme was followed up last night with an even more depressing one about the level of Type 2 diabetes which apparently affects some 4 million people in the UK with a further million bound to arrive as the disease is already there, just undiagnosed. Type 2 diabetes is an entirely avoidable disease occasioned by a lousy diet (high in sugar) and no exercise.
What struck me was the changes in lifestyle in the past decade and how they might relate to this apparently enormous increase in ill-health, both physical and mental. It would be facile to trace a direct cause and effect relationship between technology and ill-health, but there are some interesting avenues for reflection.
The first of these is the advent of social media. Facebook was launched in 2004, a mere 12 years ago. Naturally there were also Friends Reunited and MySpace which existed previously, but neither had the reach and the societal-changing effect which Facebook has produced. Twitter only arrived in 2006 and started to get some traction in 2007. Instagram hasn’t been around for more than 6 years at the time of writing.
The premise of social media is to allow distant people to be in frequent contact, to build groups and belonging and to create and strengthen social ties. Its popularity would indicate that these are things which humankind values immensely. You would expect it to increase people’s wellbeing and fight off loneliness. It seems strange, therefore, that as social media has taken over people’s lives and leisure time that this should coincide with a massive increase in the need for anti-depression medication. At the very least, if social media makes people happy, you would expect it to ward off depression and reduce the need for pills. At the worst, it is directly contributing to unhappiness.
I would contend that social media is less about keeping in touch with people you value and more about establishing a permanent and all-pervasive popularity contest. When you think about it, most people don’t have more than a very limited amount of meaningful friendships. How would you define that term? We might say that a real friend is someone who will go out of their way to help you even at some detriment to themselves. They are people you can count on, who know you well and accept your faults and foibles because on balance, they find spending time in your company enriching. When you meet them, communication is effortless. They understand you and you them. If you thought about them as a Venn diagramme, much of their personality and experience would overlap with yours.
Real friendship means seeing them, at least from time to time, or perhaps, as second best, you might phone them up and have a long, fun and interesting conversation with them. If you couldn’t do that, you might write long letters to them and get them back, even if this is by email. What meaningful deep friendship is not is having a plethora of people you hardly know “like” a picture or a comment you have posted. And yet, most of social media is precisely this. You have an army of acquaintances with whom you have friendly if superficial relationships and with whom you share your life. Can you really have 100, 200 or 300 friends?
Facebook is particularly bizarre. Here you share pictures of your children, your holidays and your achievements in the hope that they will interest someone. Naturally, you filter your life to present only the most interesting and envy-making moments. Your children have achieved special distinction and are wonderfully accomplished budding individuals. You don’t mention when they throw insufferable tantrums. You don’t so much photograph the banal evening you are having in your local pub, but your visit to the expensive Michelin-starred restaurant. You ignore your visit to a Saturday afternoon, choc-a-bloc Ikea to buy curtain material, but your 5 days in Marrakesh are extravagantly illustrated. You aren’t seen as you crawl out of bed with a hangover, but you snap yourself trying on some chic outfit in a designer store.
The impression that this leaves us all is that everyone else is having a completely brilliant time consisting of exotic holidays, mouth-watering eating experiences, admirable achievements and a wardrobe-full of expensive designer outfits. People who photograph themselves on Instagram are all would-be models and are happy to snap themselves in the gym, flaunting their toned bodies. How is this likely to make you feel? You compare your humdrum existence with its annoyances and worries with the carefree, hyper-successful lives of all those people you seem to know, albeit tenuously. You might expect this to lower your self-esteem and more importantly to increase your FOMO.
FOMO, for those who don’t already know, is the disease of our times. It is the Fear Of Missing Out. Easyjet sends you their summer offers, where you can visit the whole of Europe for peanuts. Amazon sends you their hot books, which you absolutely must read. You are assaulted with offers you can’t afford to miss, places you don’t have time to go, hotels you can’t afford to stay in, concert tours you can’t possibly attend. All this contributes to the feeling that life is passing you by. More successful, organised and richer people are stuffing their lives with all this goodness, but not you. But you don’t dare switch off. You might miss that offer that is exactly what you were looking for, the piece of information that was precisely destined for you.
Of course, these things have always been happening, but you just didn’t know about many of them, because you weren’t living your life on-line. You might have found out retrospectively that you’d missed out on something, but it was too late. There wasn’t anything that you could now do about it. Digital communication, on the other hand, fills you with daily angst that you are missing out on something. You’ve got to keep up with it: keep reading those emails, keep checking people’s status updates.
Twitter is similarly meaningless. If you get really engaged with Twitter, you won’t be doing anything else. Entire hours and days can pass as you click on all those links that people are posting to interesting pictures, articles or videos. A week later you can’t remember any of them, but you will have filled those 7 days with another feast of “content”. What were you expecting in 140 characters? Wisdom? Twitter is not full of Ogden Nashes. With Twitter you are just trying to convince the greater world of your brilliance and worthiness. You don’t even know these people and the vast majority you’ll never meet. If you really cared about them, you’d spend some time with them. It’s just a meaningless distraction. How would Twitter keep you off Prozac?
By and large, social media wastes your time and makes you unhappy, not fulfilled. It’s odd that we seem to spend so much time involved in it.
The next great revolution of the past decade is the smartphone. Apple launched the iPhone in 2007. Although it wasn’t the first smartphone, it was immediately the best and the one which kicked off the whole industry. The smartphone is a truly staggering invention. It’s not really a phone at all, it’s a pocket computer which can access the entirety of human knowledge and incidentally make phone calls. It is pointless to even start to list all the things it can do and we all know what they are in any case. It is closely related to social media as the camera allows you to document your life permanently, should you wish to, and the various apps and communication tools allow you both to share it with everyone else and to be permanently abreast of what they are doing themselves. And seemingly whatever absent people are doing is more interesting than what you are doing. That is why you consult it frequently even as you are meeting your real friends. That is why you attend to its every beep whilst they are attempting to have a conversation with you. Not to worry, they will stop listening to you to attend to their own beeps as you start talking. With the smartphone, you can live in a constant state of FOMO. And what happens when your friend’s phone beeps continually and they start to attend to their myriad “friends” while yours stays resolutely silent? Well, clearly, you’re just not a person who is interesting enough to be in demand. You loser.
More pernicious, perhaps, than 24/7 social media in your pocket is having an office in your pocket. In the old days, you finished work sometime in the late afternoon or evening and went home. If you were wise, you forgot about work and got on with life until the next morning. Not any more. Now significant emails might arrive at any time of day or night and you probably ought to attend to them at once if you want to have any sort of career. You are still at work on your sofa at 10 pm. The only way you leave the office is when you are asleep (don’t forget to download an app to make sure that you aren’t sleeping like a loser. You probably are.) You’re checking your emails before you have even got out of bed. In a globalised world, someone is always in the office, even if it’s not their sofa. Stuff floods in from the States, Japan, Australia. Some insomniac with no life seems to want to make you miserable by doing all her emails at 6 am. You haven’t even had breakfast. You loser.
Of course, it wouldn’t matter that much but you know that unseen people are queuing up to do your job. Cheaper. Better keep on top of it. It’s not a rat-race, it’s a hamster race and you just better keep scampering around in that wheel that never seems to stop. Have to commute to work? Better start on the emails. There’s plenty of work you can do before you even arrive physically at the office. And now we are promised driverless cars. This will be brilliant. You’ll be able to sit in your car and do emails in the traffic jams, or check your “friends’” updates and status. Or you could have no end of fun looking at cat videos.
I really am struggling to see how this bombardment of digital information which completely overwhelms you and demands your attention could possibly contribute to your zen sense of wellbeing. You would expect it to give rise to anxiety, dissatisfaction, feelings of inadequacy and stress. What was that about consumption of anti-depressants increasing by 50% in the past decade?
Take a train. Are people looking idly out of the window lost in reverie or contemplating the countryside? No. They are all glued to their smartphones and tablets, working or interacting. Maybe a few are reading a book. Good on them.
Naturally, if you are spending your time looking at a screen, you won’t be spending it going for a walk or kicking a football around, or even having a cup of tea with anyone. You might expect exercise levels to drop and weight gain to increase. Surprise surprise, this is precisely what you do see. The machines that were meant to set us free have in fact enslaved us. Charlie Chaplin may have satirised the factory, machine world in Modern Times in 1936 where workers struggled to keep up with the cadence dictated by machines, but now it’s just the same except that machines aren’t conveyor belts but digital devices.
Another consideration is that machines function more efficiently than people and this is supposedly a good thing. You can get a machine to do something better than you can. This might have kicked off quaintly with the pocket calculator in the early 70s. Now, with a few button-stabs, you could perform complex calculations that would take you hours of long division and the consulting of log tables. It was superb. Fast forward a few decades and we all have ABS on our cars because the machine can work out for you how hard you should be braking in order for it to be optimal. It’s hard not to quibble with such a safety device. But it hasn’t stopped there, has it? Now you have driving modes, computers that will set the engine characteristics for you, warn you about everything you might not have noticed (but most of which you will have), keep you from skidding, assist your steering and now do the parking (because you are too inept to do it yourself). This will end when the car just does all the driving. How much fun is all this? Do you just want to be a passenger in your daily life? If machines can do everything better than you, what is there left for you to do apart from look at cat pictures?
You might think that technology is perhaps not setting us free and enriching our lives. It is making us incapable (how many phone numbers can you remember?). It is making us irrelevant. And it is set to continue to do so. The much vaunted Internet of Things is coming. You won’t even have to turn on the lights or go shopping. Your fridge will have made up your mind for you. It will probably even have decided what you are having for dinner. You car will sense when you leave the house. It will have already reversed out of the garage and opened its door for you (the rear one).
All that you will be left is taking pictures of your cat, but no doubt an app will arrive to do it for you and post them on line to all your “friends”. Or you could go to the pub, if your diabetes will let you and it doesn’t interfere with your anti-depressants.