Can we remain emotionally healthy in a digital age?

Reading a review recently of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book ‘Klara And The Sun’, I was struck by how he spoke about what it is to be human.  I recommend both this interview in The Guardian, and this podcast with Adam Buxton. As you would expect, he is a thoughtful, thought provoking and very brilliant interviewee.

At the heart of the story is Klara, an android purchased to keep a young girl company in her ill health, and hard wired to learn from and serve humans. This, from Klara, lodged itself in my mind: ‘I believe I have many feelings…the more I observe the more feelings become available to me’.

I have just read ‘Born Digital: The Story of a Distracted Generation’ , Robert’s Wigley’s new book about a young people’s worrying devotion to their digital devices and how this threatens to undermine their ability to turn up as themselves in, let’s call it, real life. He reflects on the way the process of selecting, preparing and presenting online content threatens users’ ability to be authentic and to live in the moment. Talking of social media, he quotes a report by Freitas which says: ‘To live up to this pressure and constant expectation infects every dimension of his or her online experience. It influences a person’s vulnerability… their sense of future, how they feel about the ‘real them’, and how they find authenticity (or don’t) in their relationships with others, the ways in which they compare themselves to their peers, and whether or not they feel accepted or isolated socially’.

It got me wondering about a warped symmetry. The world of ‘Klara And The Sun’ is of course fictional, but the ideas Ishiguro explores are anything but. As AI becomes more and more adept at learning how to develop emotions from observing us, are we at the same time having our emotions reduced or hijacked by our interaction with the digital world?

As I read Wigley’s book, I felt a growing unease about how little control we have over the shape of the world that digitisation is forging. I know and appreciate the enormous benefits that come with the tech revolution of the last decade or so. But what is the cost of the reduced human connection we are seeing as a result? Are we sleepwalking into something irreversible? Because when they turn the lights on and there we are – standing, dazed, in our pyjamas, we won’t have the option to simply crawl back to bed and wait for morning for everything to look the same. It’s not just that the physical world will be different. It’s that the way our brains are fused and the way we emote is going to be changed forever. “Humans learn empathy and understanding by watching how their actions affect other people. Empathy can’t flourish without immediate feedback, and it’s a very slow developing skill.’

Most of us, unless we’ve been living under a stone, have been acutely aware of the threats posed by social media and young (and not-so-young) hands fused to devices. Wigley’s book crystallises that concern, collating huge amounts of research and laying it out in a simple and easy-to-digest way. This is especially helpful for someone like me who has always wanted to take on this enormous problem but has never known where to begin. It is a compelling and succinctly presented argument. And thankfully, he’s got some practical advice for parents, business and government about what to do next. The appendices alone should be stapled onto every fridge door in the country.  It’s essential reading for anyone interested in an emotionally sustainable future which, given the mental health crisis we now face, should perhaps be considered as much of a priority as our environmental health.

CD April 2021