I have arrived back at work from the Auckland Festival to find around 90 emails waiting for me. Apparently I should consider myself lucky, according to John Freeman, editor of Granta magazine and author of Shrinking the World – the average office worker sends 200 emails a day. In 2007, approximately 35 trillion emails were sent and received. And it’s not just email. We blog, belong to Facebook and Twitter, receive RSS feeds from everywhere, get all our news online and carry our i-Pods and Blackberries with us everywhere we go.
Freeman began his writing career as a book critic, but when he found he was spending more time reading the emails related to his reviews than reading the actual books he was reviewing, he realised something had to change. Shrinking the World (US title: The Tyranny of Email) is his manifesto for a Slow Communication Movement, and is one of those deceptively simple little books that can cause a real re-thinking of your life, if you let it.
The desire to feel connected to those around us is a good one, Freeman remarked during Sunday’s session, but the finiteness of life means we must choose what to prioritise – it is physically impossible to have 1500 friends.
The problem, he says, is that email itself represents a form of intermittent reinforcement. It is an enjoyable habit that is chemically enhanced – we get the reward we want from pushing the button or clicking on the icon, but only every third or fourth time we click. And increasingly we are living simultaneously in the physical and the virtual world. In any situation that removes us from electronic communication, we are painfully aware that we may be “missing stuff” – hence people’s reluctance to turn cell-phones off at the movies (or in a Festival session), and the fact that the minute the lights come up, the very first thing people do is lunge for their phones. Freeman calls it the “electronic fidget”.
He says there is so much information in the world today, and that thanks to instantaneous electronic communication we have access to all of it, but asks, “Do we have the empathic bandwidth for any of this information to be meaningful?” and again references the ‘1500 Facebook friends’ comment.
He’s not a Luddite, however. Questions about the degradation of grammar in schoolchildren were met with a shrug and the comment that kids have enough smarts to be able to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate usage. He’s also not saying we should not be using these technologies at all. What he is suggesting is that we step back enough to recognise the damage that is being done to our attention span, our empathy, and our ability to process more than seven seconds of information at a time.
The back of the book offers both the manifesto for slow communication, and what he laughingly refers to as a ’10 step intervention programme’. I’m going to try at least numbers 2, 3 and 10. I’m thinking it’s going to be a hard road.