Ben Hammersley is editor-at-large for Wired magazine and self-styled 'guru of the digital age'.
In his new book 64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then, he attempts to provide a guide to life in the twenty-first century with a series of essays that consider the role of technology and the internet in everything from personal relationships to culture and politics.
Here in this exclusive extract he considers the difficulty of finding peace in the internet age, concluding that, whether we like it or not, doing so will essential to our future as a race.
THE ZEN OF DIGITAL LIVING
In the mid-1990s the old media was awash with predictions that this Internet thing would turn out to be a fad. They were followed by wave after wave of assertions that the Internet was in fact here to stay but was incredibly corrosive of all we held dear and needed to be resisted (though quite how, when it was taking over the world, was never really clear).
There is nothing new about people being alarmed by technological innovation of course, but what is different in the case of the Internet is the extent to which this particular technological innovation has revolutionised every aspect of life, and with it, brought excitement and anxiety on an unprecedented scale.
In 1999 Douglas Adams wrote an article for the Sunday Times entitled 'How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet' that set out the three stages of human beings' attitude to any new technology, but most particularly to this one.
Adams' take on our default position is that 'anything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal.' That's followed by 'anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it,' and then, inevitably, 'anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the begin¬ning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be all right really.'
The most important element of Adams' pronouncement is that first one, about normality. For many people, Internet-based applications like Skype and email barely register as technology any more. They are just features of the way the world works, like cold in winter and heat in summer.
We all of us have the capacity to take for granted the previously miraculous innovations that excited or worried previous generations, but we are all on a conveyor belt towards excitement and worry in our turn. One of the great challenges of the immediate future will be to strengthen a flow of compassion between Adams' three camps, whose world views are so schismatically different. It's imperative that we do.
The consequences of a failure in the dialogue between, say, the legislators that were way past thirty when the World Wide Web became a phenomenon, and the latest generation of activists who cannot imagine a world without Facebook and file-sharing, are worrying. Any attempt to roll back Internet freedom by the digitally illiterate would be a terrible waste of time, effort and money. The frustration of the younger digital natives would spill over into protest and even more disenchantment with the hierarchies that rule them.
Adams' scheme accounts for a drift towards acceptance, as fear subsides and the new technology becomes part of the furniture. To a great extent this has happened with the Internet, but the digital world still provokes fear and anger, perhaps because of its all-pervasiveness and its ability to disrupt entrenched power systems on a massive scale. It behoves those who live in the Internet-enabled world with most ease to extend empathy to those who are still struggling to grasp what has happened. That may prove difficult. Across the developed world there is already an inter-generational conflict raging over the monopoly of assets and power by the baby boomers even as the privileges they enjoyed are disappearing from their children's horizons. With the global economy in a parlous state, the potential for this fight to escalate is huge - and if it does, it will be played out over the Internet.
Relations between those who do get it and those who don't are one thing. How to interact with the digital world is an ongoing challenge for the digital natives as well. The first and second generation have moved from excited first contact with the basics of a networked environment, via exhilarating immersion in its complexity, to, increasingly, a pared-back simplicity in their Internet usage that allows them to live harmoniously with and on the new platform.
These people have been living on-line for nearly twenty years and during that time they have been evolving the sort of best practice that we saw in the previous chapter, increasingly unsubscribing to information, connecting only when it suits them and learning how to absorb the extraordinary capabilities imparted by the new technology into their own range of skills.
Over the last ten years, improvements in personal communications technology have been nothing short of transformative. It is almost as if we have all acquired superpowers - the ability to open up a live window into the experience of someone on the other side of the world, for example, via Skype. We can store limitless email exchanges and recall them at the touch of a button to check what we really said to that acquaintance we fell out with six years ago. There's no need to remember friends' birthdays or which actor starred in which film - if we need to know the date or the name we can look it up in a split second. We need never get lost again since so long as we have a smartphone we can always locate ourselves, virtually anywhere in the world.
These properties belong to the technology, of course, not to us. And yet, because of the ever-increasing ubiquity and intimacy of our usage of these devices, we absorb their powers in the same way that if we lived on the moon we would all be able to jump ten feet in the air with no effort at all.
The memory in our smartphones or our personal computers is increasingly an extension of our own selves since we have outsourced so much of our cognitive function to these technologies. And as they grow ever more widespread and ever more personal, we begin to assume that everyone else around us is also using the same technology; that they too are taking on these superpowers.
In the age of GPS apps on every handheld device, it is less and less comprehensible to excuse our lateness to an appointment on the grounds of getting lost. We have seen over and over again that the etiquette that governs our use of the new capabilities evolves far more slowly than the technology itself. The digital natives have spent the last ten years developing a consensus about acceptable behaviour between individuals in the new digital world, and just recently those norms have taken a distinct shift towards a relaxed simplicity. Now as boundaries between our own consciousness and the technology's functions grow more and more porous, we need to set to work again, to develop a new sense of where the limits are.
In the end, the greatest challenge of digital living will be to manage the relationship we have with our own selves, as even that most intimate and nebulous connection is more and more mediated by digital technology.
It is early days, but its glimmerings can be seen in the emergence of the precepts of personal productivity gurus. These figures, twenty-first-century prophets promising peace of mind and perfect mastery of your to-do list, encourage us, for example, to aim for the state of inbox zero. When our email is an ever-present record of our social and work interactions, a list of obligations and incomplete tasks all rolled into one, it begins to feel like an extension of our unquiet mind.
Personal productivity systems teach us to inspect each item in the email system (and the box file and the document files on our computer) consider its purpose in a calm and mindful way and resolve to move it on or out of our lives. This is a mind-clearing technique for our times, a humble successor to the ritual of confession or therapy, but an analogous tool. Perhaps, before too long, an empty inbox and a clear conscience will be one and the same thing.
One thing is for sure, the Internet is not going away. It is the essence of the world we live in, the dominant paradigm for all social cultural and economic interactions in the twenty-first century. It's a staggering achievement, a tool for the reinvention of society, a giant experiment in new ways to relate to people, do business and learn about the world; it's also an infinitely capacious junk store bursting with videos of kittens, a glorious joke that's evolving its own complexity, one that may yet outwit us. The Internet has shaped us and will continue to define the contours of our endeavours for the foreseeable future. It is us and we are it.
Extract taken from 64 Things You Need to Know Now for Then by Ben Hammersley (Hodder & Stoughton £20)