My novel, Pendulum, will be published in November. It examines the changing nature of crime, and how the digital world connects us to life-altering events in ways we could never previously imagine.
Thirty years ago, most people lived predictable existences. We went to work, and rarely took it home with us because the technology that enables the now routine encroachment into our private lives simply didn't exist. We had genuine free time away from the concerns of our jobs, which we would usually spend with an established social group of friends and family. Rich or poor, struggling or comfortable, life had a regular rhythm, and usually didn't involve exposure to highly stressful or catastrophic incidents.
Digital technology has changed that. We're now always on, connected to the world, to all its good and bad. A friend of mine who works for a big City firm says its frowned upon if she doesn't respond to emails within two hours, even if she's on an overseas holiday. In certain professions, the working day no longer has any meaning, and the stress of the job is with us every waking hour.
The pressure of work is mundane and manageable when compared to some of the other ways in which digital connections have transformed lives. I know people who've been victimised on social media for supporting feminism, who've become the victims of coordinated campaigns to destroy their livelihoods. Orchestrated on certain online boards, these vindictive campaigns are the consequence of people being able to connect with each other anonymously, and being given a forum in which they can receive validation from others that it's okay to target and victimise someone for expressing a belief.
Victimisation isn't confined to bullying. We've recently seen the tragic case of Tiziana Cantone, 31, who took her own life after trying in vain to have footage of her having sex with her boyfriend removed from multiple online platforms. People probably made sex tapes in the days of VHS, but there was no way to instantly share them with millions of people around the world. I cannot begin to image the stress and suffering of Ms Cantone, as people all over the world became witting or unwitting parties to her misery.
Unfortunately, there are many other instances of suicide linked to cyberbullying and victimisation. Nobullying.com has a record of some of the tragic cases here. In almost all of these cases, the incident that sparked the bullying, and the continued victimisation would have been impossible without digital technology. Our computers, tablets and phones don't just give us a window on the world: they're doorways that also allow people in. The anonymous nature of the Internet means that we will often not know the true identity of people we might interact with on social media.
Anonymity gives people the ability to express themselves without fear of consequences, and robbed of identity and social context, it can encourage people to espouse extreme views that they would never articulate in the real world. If you've ever wondered who these people are, Listverse.com has a top ten of Internet trolls who were stripped of their anonymity, which you can check out here.
Interactions that result in death are rare, but ones that expose us to high levels of stress and conflict are surprisingly commonplace. One doesn't have to dig very deep on Twitter or Facebook to see hatred and hostility. Some of the authors I follow on Twitter are engaged in daily battles with anonymous trolls who spew the most hateful bile including rape and death threats. Frankly, I don't know how my colleagues can expose themselves to such hatred, and take it on, day after day.
Prior to the digital age, when would we have ever been exposed to such hostility? When would we have experienced such stress in our lives?
Some people regard such exchanges as the rough and tumble of social media. They take pride in the fact that the Internet is unregulated, and, like the Wild West, if the streets end up peppered with a few bloody bodies, it's a small price to pay for the wild pioneering progress of digital technology.
I don't agree. With digital connections enabling exposure to toxic levels of stress and the indisputable link between social media use and teenage mental health issues, there can be little doubt that how we use the Internet has an impact on our general wellbeing. I think we need to take great care over the connections we allow into our lives, and I believe that there's one simple change social media providers could make to give us all a better online experience: they should put an end to anonymity. I'm a staunch believer in free speech, but if you've got something to say, you should have the courage to say it in your own name.
If you're not willing to put your name to it, maybe you shouldn't say it.
Pendulum will be available from all good booksellers on November 3rd. Run, the prequel to Pendulum, is available as an ebook now.