Stephen Ginn: Xmas manifesto

Stephen GinnIt’s easy to assume that things are as they’ve always been. This of course is not the case and recently I discovered that the rate of economic growth during the UK’s industrial revolution, one of my native land’s most significant upheavals, rarely exceeded 1%. Nowadays, for a country’s economy to be admired, economic growth needs to be at least double this number, which is to say that a growth rate of what was once a time of enormous upheaval has now become commonplace and mediocre.

This has a significant upside. From a state where it would take two generations or more for what was once simply imagination to become reality we are now in situation where what is unthinkable in our early lives is realized well before the reaper calls. I remember with fondness when I was young and my father brought a laser home from his work and we invited all the children in the neighbourhood around to see it in action. Some were so excited that they made repeat visits; readers can try to imagine the depth of their indifference should a similar offer be made today. I am less enamored with my recollection with my first experience of accessing the internet as where others saw opportunity I saw a page that crashed immediately and instinctively knew that it would come to nothing.

Change in modern life is nowhere more prominent than that brought by information technology. So significant are the transformations visited that it often feels as if we’re involved in a project no less important than that of redefining what it is to be human. I exaggerate, and (at the risk of looking foolish a second time) some technologies – Twitter for instance – are over-hyped but someone cryogenically frozen in 1995 and thawed in 2009 would need to be equipped with a mobile phone and a broadband connection or would swiftly find themselves unable to use the maps application on their iPhone to guide themselves to any Xmas parties.

But the benefits of new technologies should also be viewed in the context of what is lost. The demise of some things, say camera film, troubles none but aficionados, the rigid or sentimental of outlook, but other changes are more significant. There is concern that, with an email arriving every three minutes, the modern workforce is permanently distracted and their days fragmented. Universal mobile phone usage means that silence, always a precious commodity, is all but extinct and with this a chance for reflection and self awareness. The Blackberry’s email technology, universal Wi-Fi coverage means that the boundary between work and recreation is blurred as never before. Our population feels if it is constantly behind, but yet never deserving of a rest.

This situation is I suspect only going to get worse, or better depending on your point of view. Whilst this technology is undoubtedly transformational, a skill we have yet to learn is when to switch it off. But with many of us getting four days off at Xmas, this holiday season would be a good time to start. Power down your television, mobile phone, mp3 player, laptop computer find a comfortable chair, preferably in the sunlight and nowhere near your recently purchased ebook of “1001 Places to visit before you die“. Close your eyes. Then when you open them again send us an email, twitter or text and let us know how you got on.

Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age – Maggie Jackson
Information overload: Switch off your mobile, iPod, and emails – technology is turning our brains to mush – Daily Mail, July 2008
Can I have your attention please? –  Guardian CiF, January 2008
Stress of modern life cuts attention spans to five minutes – Telegraph, November 2008.

Stephen Ginn is a psychiatrist in training working in London. He writes the blog Frontier Psychiatrist, where this post is also published.