My granddaughter just turned two. She lives in Trinidad. I live in Houston, Texas. And yet I shared some of her day. Singing happy birthday with her parents and other grandmother, watching the candles splutter with puffing help from her older sister, and I saw the first tentative wheels of the bike, not the bus, go round and round.
All because of the genius, gossamer threads of the world wide web!
And so, as I continue with this piece, I acknowledge the benefits of an interconnected world. Of shared events, albeit virtually. All something which was not possible when I grew up abroad, or when my children grew up, abroad.
My work life would be infinitely more convoluted without the ability to communicate with editors and publishers around the world through email. The wait is always long for rejection or, occasionally, acceptance. Much longer though in the days of snail mail, and so yes, my dependency is great.
And yet. And yet, the omnipotence and omnipresence of a connected world is troubling, in that it can lessen the experience of actual life. When relocating to a new country, town or even going to college, it is easy to stay in touch with the friends we left behind – a wonderful aspect of an interconnected life. It is, though, also too easy to use that screen as a crutch, not as an aid but a hinderance. Real faces, real situations – even if they are a little daunting sometimes – are what allows us to learn about our new surroundings, new customs, in a palpable way, and that is what helps us grow. No matter our age.
We text, or email, a friend or colleague two doors down, or one floor up. We sit across the table from our spouse, our boyfriends, our girlfriends, our children, and instead of talking, share the latest ‘cute and cuddly’ video on Facebook. Conversation is sometimes generated, but often we are too busy texting our indignation, or approbation, to actually speak. To discuss. And to sometimes argue, respectfully. Our thoughts reduced to 140 characters on Twitter, and whatever our fingers can punch at speed on an abbreviated text message.
War 2 B waged! 4 shame! I’m L8! Now, taken to the extreme, that last one could mean I’m running late for an engagement or meeting, or my period has not arrived and I’m pregnant. You get my drift. There is often no context, and that can be dangerous, or at the very least panic inducing!
And that’s not good.
FOMO is contagious – and it’s not just the Millennials and the Gen Z’ers who are falling into the trap of ‘fear of missing out’. Us baby boomers and Gen X’ers are often right there with them. Private issues are spread around the world in a nanosecond, reducing intimate matters to a handful of letters, symbols and emojis to be read by virtual friends rather than cup-of-coffee or wine-drinking friends, in the here and now. In our haste to share we sometimes overshare.
The constant documenting of successes by others, the anxiety caused by feelings of not being able to compete can have a detrimental effect, particularly for those of a less robust disposition. The burden of being made to feel less educated, less successful, less perfect, drives some to final despair, as the 30 year suicide high attests. According to the National Center for Health Statistics in the US, the overall suicide rate rose 24% from 1999 to 2014.
The World Economic Forum calls the ease of disseminating “massive digital misinformation a threat to society”. We suffer from what the experts call ‘confirmation bias’; spreading, with the tap of a key, any story scrolling down our Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram or whatever platform we follow, merely because it agrees with our point of view, regardless of whether the story is true. No wonder social trust from Millennials is at an historic low. We suffer from what New York Times columnist, David Brooks, calls the ‘politics of suspicion’.
But FOMO can also impact those who do manage to keep a handle on their expectations, by dint of someone else’s lack of concentration. Deaths by distracted driving or by walking across a busy junction with earphones plugged in and eyes glued to a screen, are reported daily. Some states, and countries, have banned texting while behind the wheel. Some, like Texas, call that an infringement on our personal liberties. I call death or maiming by a driver intent on the screen and not the road, an infringement on all our liberties.
So, while I revel in the ease of communication with my global family and friends, and my work, I also recognise we need to impose our own limits. We need to put the phones and iPads down. We need to stop worrying about what we don’t have, and take in and cherish what is around us – tangible – people and places. Who cares what Flo, Jo or Mo have? Not me!