It's a Mann's world: The Time Traveller's Strife

Olly Mann

Olly Mann considers the reality of life in another era, and decides he’s better off staying put…

If you could live in one historical era, which would you choose? Perhaps you’d be Victorian, at the vanguard of industrialisation; or a Renaissance artist, painting pious pictures of breasts; or even an Ancient, slaughtering goats for Apollo en route to a packed performance of Antigone. Not I.

Whenever I’m chucked this dinner party curve ball, my response is identical: right now. Yep, of all eras of history, I’d choose to live in the age of Right Now; despite our political instability, our culture of celebrity, our “freakshakes”, PPI and laminate flooring. Partly this is because I know my forebears scratched a living in ghettos, so it’s hard to imagine myself enjoying an especially attractive lifestyle in ye olden days. (My great-grandfather supposedly remarked, when arriving from Russia in the 1890s, that Britain was great because “nobody spits at you in the street”.)

But I’d also choose Right Now because this era is so obviously, evidently, quantifiably better. Improvements in medicine are manifold: we live longer, keyhole surgery is routine, polio is effectively eradicated. Equal rights, admittedly, are somewhat work-in-progress, but broadly speaking, Westerners have the right to work, reside and vote as we please, regardless of gender, sexuality, or ethnicity.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of technology. Information once available for a four-figure sum in dusty leather-bound encyclopedias is now free, with a tap of a keyboard or a click of a mouse. Ditto almost all music and art. Influential thinkers, leaders and creatives are directly contactable. Mobile communication and cloud computing allow us to manage our work without being chained to a desk so stay-at-home parents, the wheelchair-bound and the unemployed all have a better shot at entrepreneurship. And, as I’ve charted in this magazine’s tech pages for a number of years, even budget smartphones now provide professional-grade cameras, sat-navs, calculators, microphones, calendars and pagers... all for substantially less than it once cost to buy such devices separately.

 

The unsettling present

So, yeah: Right Now is when I would choose to live. I have my reservations, as we all do, about the sometimes scary-seeming world of AI robots, self-driving vehicles and corporate-controlled surveillance we’re bequeathing to our children, but I’m intrigued, as each of these developments arrive, to actually try them out. I’m a bit misty-eyed, as we all are, about pre-internet days when kids spent longer outside, and Yellow Pages ads ran at Christmas. But nostalgia is partly a trick of the mind. My grandma claims London was nicer when she was a girl, in the 1940s—when everyone smoked, the smog was suffocating, and she was evacuated because her house was bombed by Nazis.

However, there’s a fly in the ointment and it’s this: the effect that being constantly connected is having on our brains. As Laurence Scott brilliantly explores in his 2015 book The Four-Dimensional Human, the posts and comments we put up on social media don’t depart our minds when we press “send.” Instead, they can trigger a persistent, mild anxiety. So, as I go about my daily business in the three-dimensional “real world,” I crave an update on my status in the “fourth dimension”­­—my online persona. I’ll sit on the beach and admire the sunset, yet feel I haven’t fully enjoyed the experience until I’ve shared it with strangers on Instagram. I’ll pick up a newspaper on the train, and find myself wondering what Donald Trump’s tweeted since it went to press. I’ll feed my son his lunch on Wednesday, and wonder why my aunt has not yet “liked” the video I uploaded of him eating his lunch on Tuesday.

"Technological evolution is outpacing our own: humans feel innately unsettled if we don't have time to become bored"

This, clearly, isn’t particularly healthy and, worryingly, even the very people who designed this environment agree that it isn’t. Steve Jobs famously didn’t let his own kids use iPads; current Apple CEO Tim Cook admits he won’t permit his nephew to use social networks. Loren Brichter, who invented Twitter’s addictive pull-to-refresh feature, has now removed notifications from his own phone.

The psychological side effects of social media aren’t side effects at all—they’re the ingrained intention of commercially-funded media companies. Essentially, the more time we spend using their products, the more advertising these companies sell. As long as there’s no substantive progression of that business model, our addiction will continue.

So it’s no surprise to me that the boom we’re experiencing in mobile technology, these weapons of mass distraction, has coincided with a surge of interest in books about mindfulness, meditation and silence. Technological evolution is outpacing our own: we humans feel innately unsettled if we don’t have periods of our lives when we stop, think, concentrate and, yes, sometimes become bored.

I adore technology, but recently I’ve tried to create a few more phone-free moments in my day. That way, rather than being sucked into my timeline, I can pause to consider how I actually feel about the issues of the day. Such as, for example, which historical era I’d most like to live in. Having thought about it more, I’d still definitely choose Right Now.