Tanya Goodin’s new book is alarming, informative and galvanising, to the extent that I ask her for a Zoom before I’ve even finished reading it.
This was a mistake. By the time I’ve learnt that she’d rather not do a video call, I’ve got to the chapter where she explains that only 12 per cent of us feel as comfortable on video calls as on audio, that video calls are tiring and distracting, and that voice calls, counter-intuitively, seem to be a better way of building rapport and exchanging information. Rather than making Zoom calls the default, Goodin writes, “we can take this pressure off ourselves and substitute some of our video calls for a few old-fashioned audio calls”.
So that’s what we do. After 18 months of the pandemic era, you might not remember how voice calls work, but it’s roughly like this: you hold your phone to your ear and you alternate between listening and speaking. You don’t have to worry about your hair, your background or your choppy broadband, and you can potter around your house as you conduct your conversation. As I do so, Goodin’s voice is in my ear. “What’s great about audio is that you build a better relationship,” she says, as we build a better relationship.
The case of video calls swiftly becoming our default mode of communication, to the detriment of our relationships, is typical of our times. New technology and software, not merely video calls but also instant messaging, social media and much else, have sprung up with marvellous speed. Given the pace of these developments, it is inevitable that we are lagging behind in our establishment of good norms and good practice.
Hence the neologistic maladies described by Goodin in her book: “phubbing” (mindlessly scrolling rather than listening); “sharenting” (flooding social media with your child’s image); “nomophobia” (panicking when you’re without your phone). And then there’s the sensation that Goodin calls “having too many tabs open”, a feeling that you might encounter when, after a day of frenetic emailing, you relax by scrolling through social media while you half-watch television.
Does any of this make you shift guiltily in your seat? Perhaps you’re reading this on a screen, phubbing a family member at this very instant. As Goodin tells me, “the way we behave is affecting everyone around us, and it’s not our fault we’re behaving like this, because we are lab rats in this big, very well-funded experiment”.
What she refers to is the billions of dollars that Silicon Valley tech companies have spent on products such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, whose advertising revenue depends on your eyeballs. Every facet of these products is painstakingly designed to emotionally engage us.
The more engaged we are, the longer we spend there, and the more valuable an asset we each become (and to hell with our ability to concentrate meaningfully on anything else).
“I want people to realise,” Goodin says, “that this isn’t because we’re all just lazy, we’ve got no self control, we’re not disciplined. This is because we are being sold to, we are being manipulated, and our habits are being shaped in a very sophisticated way. And we just need to be really wise to that and learn the tricks that will help us deal with it.”
Goodin, perhaps not coincidentally, was an early adopter of the technology of which she is now a withering critic. In 1995, three years before Google was founded, she set up one of the first digital marketing agencies in the UK. In 2007, she was one of the first Britons to buy an iPhone. And from 2012, by which time social media was curdling into the bad-tempered and addictive state in which we find it today, she has led the “Time to Log Off” movement, whose latest outgrowth is her book My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open.
When our web browsers have too many tabs open, the most satisfying solution is to simply close them all at once: an instant purge. That approach, though compelling, won’t work as a general solution to our problems with technology. “Becoming completely isolated and cut off is not the answer,” Goodin says, “but I think we do need to think in a really broad-brush way about what’s happened to us, as a society.”
And along the way, we can work out how best to manage typical problems that arise from technology use, the most pressing of which are as follows.