OURS is a society obsessed by the portable screen, the information scrolling, the blandishments of elsewhere. The smartphone has so fundamentally altered our sensibilities that we can tolerate culture only in the slenderest of tranches, and rarely trust that the situation that we are experiencing in the here and now is richer than what might be going on somewhere else.
In The Documentary: Controlled and Connected (World Service, Saturday), there was no shortage of voices heaping blame for the ills of our age on the creation, in 1973, of the mobile phone. But what of that first Motorola engineer, Martin Cooper, who, 50 years ago, made a call to his rivals at AT&T from the first cellular device? Is he, like Robert Oppenheimer, for ever cursing the monster that he helped to create? Mr Cooper has no such regrets; but he does rue the fact that his wife cannot go five minutes without checking her device.
As this was the World Service, the perspective was not simply that of the angst-ridden European and American middle class. For rural communities in East Africa, for instance, the mobile phone has offered financial empowerment, and from South America we heard how social media apps had enabled new forms of community engagement.
In academia, we now have a new species: the “digital anthropologist”, a sample of whose insights we were treated to in the programme. So far as his discipline is concerned, this is a gift that will continue to give for many years, and there are thousands of studies as yet unwritten on the cultural impact of what has proved to be the fastest disseminated technology in history.
The digital world isolates just as it unites. Thus is it possible to “delete from your reality” anybody with whom you no longer wish to have contact. It is an eerie phrase, quoted with reference to the digital-currency entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried, whose billion-dollar bubble burst spectacularly last year (Press, 18 November 2022). Bankruptcy and imprisonment followed. The whole gripping and fantastical story is told in Spellcaster, a Bloomberg/Wondery co-production podcast (episodes released every Wednesday on all platforms).
Deleting people from his reality is what Mr Bankman-Fried is said to have done with anybody who dared to question his frenetic ambition — although Hannah Miller’s account made it sounds very much as though it was his sense of reality that had undergone deletion. With no apparent boundary between work and life, the Bitcoin billionaire existed latterly in a Bahamian condo, with a posse of his most loyal employees, doing super-charged deals on their beanbags and sustained by vegan burgers.
Once upon a time, it had all been in the interests of something called “effective altruism”: a movement that encourages the nouveau-tech riches to give away large sums of money in exchange for a TED talk and a photo op with Tony Blair.
There is a wonderful moment on Christmas Day 2017, when the office, furnished with dozens of computers, is plunged into darkness. As the geeks scrabble around for a socket which remains unfused, they never consider that this might be a sign.