I’m reading at Prahran pool, it’s that lethargic part of January in which anything goes. The protagonist of the book I’m reading confesses Then I checked my phone for messages coming…, checked in with the pacifying spread of headlines, scandals, archaic regressions, the latest on World Ice, before powering it down as part of my renewed effort to be present with my girls,. Amused about the resemblance of this confession to my sister’s new year’s resolution, I underline it and send a photo off to her. The photo disappears into a cloud and lands in her hand quicker than I can process a new thought. Then, a woman with a British accent two towel lengths away says to the small cluster of women she is sitting among that she left her phone at home today because she ‘just wanted to enjoy the pool’. This is a sentiment I have noticed gaining momentum in my own body and in many of the bodies around me. Might we be seeing the toll of the Information Age?
Trying to disengage is like flexing a muscle we don’t have.
The Information Age, also known as the Computer Age, Digital Age, or New Media Age, is an ongoing period in our history that started in the middle of the 20th century in the wake of the industrial revolution. The Information Age is characterised by a shift from more traditional modes of industry established by the industrial revolution to an economy and consciousness dictated by information technology. I stress that this ‘Information Age’ and ‘toll’ I’m referring to is not pointed at one demographic, one platform or one device, nor is it our collective screen time.
It is the entire -increasingly artificial- eco-system we are living in, an eco-system of perpetual hustle, consumption, comparison, tension.
These landscapes appear physically as food courts, gyms, and Ikea showrooms, which we can, if we want to, minimise our exposure to. However, it is the psychological landscapes that are increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to turn away from and turn off. It is waking up and feeling inundated with detail. With images of avocado toast garnished with edible bouquets; headlines that read ‘how to take a photo of Wednesday night’s super moon with your smartphone’; theatrical gender reveals of unborn children; dogs in Halloween costumes; the radio saying the Taliban’s captured Kabul while your phone plays a video of makeup immaculately applied using the end of a banana. It’s the feeling of the whole world pressing closer and closer. To turn away from the Information Age, the pacifying spread of headlines, scandals, archaic regressions, is counterintuitive. It feels like flexing a muscle we don’t have.
‘The invention of the car was also the invention of the car crash’.
Over cold glasses of beer under an established evergreen, a friend comments on all the bizarre modes of transport moving up and down Gertrude Street. I nod, noticing the flashy scooters, electric cargo bikes and no-push skateboards moving all around us. Over the past few weeks, I have found myself deliberating over whether to buy an E-bike or a Vespa. I have been evaluating the pros and cons based on efficiency, cost, and ease of travel. My friend does not approve of either option. You should save your money and just get a regular push bike, which has done us just fine up until, well, just now apparently, he says looking around again, visibly agitated. I nod, recognising the appeal of old-school simplicity but knowing deep down I will purchase the electric one because it makes the whole riding thing just easier. And a quote from Jenny Offill’s book, Weather, pokes me in this moment sitting under the established tree: the invention of the car was also the invention of the car-crash.
Technology has afforded us material abundance, but at what cost?
Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it has radically changed many lives for the better and positively enriched individuals, whole societies and enabled a more globalised planet. But on the other, it has created a world that is far more complex and increasingly challenging to navigate. At 24 years of age, I was spared (only just) having to face my developmental years carrying the weight of the world’s problems in my back pocket. I catch glimpses of the toll in the clients I touch base with on the phone during the day in my psychology reception job, the friends I chat with intimately, as well as people I encounter in public. Some will remark about low moods, umbrella-worry or that they ‘can’t quite put their finger on it’. Others express explicit disillusion, exhaustion, boredom and/or burn-out. I can see that our technological progress has permitted us material abundance, but are we ignoring the cost? Is my friend correct? Should I be finding time to return to the basics and give meaning back to the subordinate tasks?
Recognising the burden of unnatural psychological spaces.
One Sunday evening while walking home from the cinema through the backstreets of my suburb, I observe the car crash in plain sight. It’s a sequence of observations really. First, I pass a Tesla car showroom, which is opposite an accident repairs centre. Then, not much further down the road, I observe a boy, 4 max, playing with a shiny remote control Tesla toy car. And, like when you wake up thirsty in the dead of night and sense a terrifying apparition lurking in the corner of your kitchen, I experience the fear of something unknown, something far bigger than me. I can see the crash about to happen when I catch up with my eldest brother who is anticipating his second baby, trying to excel at work and gripped by an impatient, anxiety to enter the housing market. A tightness in my chest is characteristic of these car-crash moments as I am confronted by the succession of man-made things, the unnatural physical and psychological spaces, we have imposed and continue to impose. How, I wonder, does one wake up, step back, say, no, Monster, you cannot eat me.
The move from The Information Age to The Age of ‘Reckoning’.
In a profound article in Forbes, Brian Bri, former software engineer at Google, warns the rise of the internet within the Information Age has enabled ‘new modes of social interaction that the evolution of our primate brains didn’t equip us to handle’. He identifies the conflict in the way we are supposably more connected than ever while at the same time lonely, burnt out and starved of genuine positive human attention and interaction with natural habitats. Bri explains we are right now witnessing the gradual move out of the Information Age, into what he calls the Age of Reckoning. This ‘reckoning’ he speaks of entails substantial bouts of introspection and sacrifice. Two muscles the information age of distraction and convenience seldom exercises. ‘We are going to have to look inward and confront some uncomfortable truths about human nature, understand the fact that technology can amplify both the best and the worst aspects of it’.
Today we see the Age of Reckoning being taken up by writers, artists, and thinkers. Three books I have on my desk as I write this speak directly to these issues. From Patricia Lockwood’s, No One is Talking About This and Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World Where Are You to Charlotte Wood’s The Luminous Solution. The discussion is happening. When I take these books to bed with me, it’s like a friend running a brush through my hair or a therapist sitting across from me saying I hear you, I feel this way too. Several times setting out and in the middle of writing this piece, I shut my laptop, feeling daunted by the enormity of it all, unsure about what exactly I was trying to say other than offering my own slightly nihilistic disillusion. But I think this dialogue, which takes issue with the Information Age and gives language to the toll, is the first moment of the reckoning. I’m hopeful about what might come out of the reckoning, the conversations and introspection for if there is one thing technology has shown, it is that we are an ever adapting, always evolving species.
We owe it to our mental health and wellbeing to spend time in analogue spaces.
One Sunday at Fitzroy Pool, my quandary with the Information Age manifests in the lane next to me. I’m in the shallow end stretching my hamstring and staring at the large ‘Aqua Profunda’ calligraphy suspended on the deep end’s wall. A woman preparing to swim has earplugs that look a lot like headphones until I realise they are in fact headphones which have circumvented the natural way of things. I watch her click something on her Apple watch, put in the second headphone, slide a cap over her head and take off down the lane. Up until this moment, I thought the pool would, for the most part, remain an unscathed arena to the advances of technology. The knowledge of the headphones connected to the watch connected to the world impales me for a long while. And sure, it has crossed my mind before that it would be nice to occasionally listen to a podcast or song when swimming, especially on those morning I lack flow and rhythm and motivation. But I think, in these very brief 45 minutes of my day, I owe it to myself, my mental health, to resist easier and protect this analogue space because it is perhaps the only one I have left.