I blame Tim Berners-Lee, myself. The inventor of the world wide web has a lot to answer for. Would you agree?
Let me explain. Every morning I follow a particular routine. The first part involves letting the dog out in the back garden, then progresses through starting the coffee machine followed by a few drugs. No, no, no… Not that sort. I’m talking statins, which are both legal and necessary – or so my doctor tells me. My coffee (black, no sugar) suitably mugged, I settle down with dog on lap (yes, he’s only small), to… check my smartphone.
Now, this has only become part of my daily habits in recent years, but I bet a pound to a kilo that “checking your phone” is a regular practice for anyone reading this blog. I’m right, aren’t I? I bet you did it shortly before you clicked on this post, and will do so again in a short while. And it’s this “smartphone info monopoly” that worries me.
We rely on the damn things so much. For information. We want to know: what time is it; who’s on social media; has anyone responded to/followed my tweet; what is that email in my Inbox; has China invaded Taiwan, or Japan; is there still time to renew my library books online? And so on, and so on… Okay, that was a random selection – not what I did this morning. I gave up on social media some time ago, and I could never get the hang of tweeting. But each day I will still check for emails and WhatsApp messages, look at two versions of what today’s weather holds in store, skim through the headlines on the BBC, and then look to see what is on the news feed from Google.
It seems like I’ve always done this, but really this is a relatively new part of my day. The world wide web has only been around since 1991, and I was born in 1952. I officially became an adult over twenty years before computers started linking up, so what on earth did I used to do if I wanted to know what was going on out there?
As a writer, for me that digital connection to the outside world is an absolute godsend. I can’t imagine how I would continue if someone permanently pulled the plug. Having a search engine at my fingertips for research purposes is the modern version of spending hours at a public library, using limited resources (in print form), and taking notes in longhand. I also can’t imagine how I would substitute the facilities available to me using Streetview in combination with Google Maps. Then there’s the opportunity to communicate digitally, instead of mailing documents in paper format.
The danger, as I see it, is “too much information”.
We have a generation growing up now who believe it is normal to have access to almost anything. If they are prevented from knowing something by law, for instance, they can use digital technology to get around it – by something called “hacking”, or even through social media channels that are not policed. Shortly before writing this piece, I read that a young man employed by the US military was charged with “leaking” sensitive information that could have life-changing implications for millions worldwide. Why? It seems he felt the rest of the world had a right to that knowledge. Do we? Are we safer in our beds today because a naïve young man was allowed access to secrets way above his pay grade?
Thinking about it, maybe it should be Tim Berners-Lee in the dock. But what would I know?