If you take a look at how we live our lives now, it’s hard to imagine an existence before we had digital. So much of our everyday life revolves around the internet, mobile networks and the ability to communicate and consume online.
In such a relatively short space of time, digital has changed EVERYTHING.
Digital has completely changed our expectations of the world. We expect information, entertainment and services to be available instantly wherever we are. And we want them delivered NOW, this second, because we’ve lost our ability to wait. It’s given us unrivalled choice, but also made us impatient.
So is this level of choice actually doing us harm? Are we evolving into obsessives who aren’t happy until our online needs have been resolved?
The desire for instant solutions
Let’s jump back a couple of centuries to the invention of steam power and the start of the industrial revolution (yeah, it’s going to one of THOSE kinds of blog posts…).
Steam power changed the world, by giving humanity a new power and new way to shape our environment. There’s a parallel here with the emergence of digital technology. Digital has allowed us to create whole new services, services that just weren’t possible until the technology was there to deliver them.
Think how the railways changed the face of the country, and the world, in the 1800s – digital technology is opening up the world in the same way, by giving us new ways to get information, new ways to consumer goods, new ways to meet people and new ways to communicate.
And, crucially, digital has become part of the everyday; it’s part of the fabric of 21st century living.
Think about the impact of digital on our lives:
- Any pub debate can be solved by Googling the question and finding out the correct answer. Because of the internet. Because we have digital information. Although, interestingly, that’s precisely why the pre-digital Guinness Book of Records was set up – to provide answers on commonly contested pub questions and provide a definitive answer (thanks to Dave Gorman for pointing this out in his show!).
- Any kid can watch their favourite TV show right now. And then watch it again…and again. Because of digital. Not so good for parents (I know from experience), but kids love it. And because their favourite episode of Peppa Pig is just a long string of zero and ones, it can be buffered, saved, stopped, paused, rewound and fast-forwarded to their heart’s content. That digital element makes it easier to consume, and makes it flexible enough to consume in the way that suits us (or suits our demanding two-year-old).
- Any movie-lover can watch the film they want immediately in Netflix or Amazon Prime. There’s no need to pay through the nose for a cinema ticket. No need to hunt through that pile of dusty DVDs to find the right disk. There’s no need to even leave the comfort of your warm sofa – just point the remote, choose the movie and click the button to pay. It’s that simple. It’s that easy. It’s that quick.
- Any shopper can find the product they want online at Amazon or eBay, or order their weekly shop at a time that’s convenient to them. And convenience really is the key thing here. By buying online, we remove all the inconveniences of shopping in the high street. The ‘shop’ is never shut. There are no problems finding a park space. There are no issues with the item you want being out of stock in your local branch. It just works.
So, digital has transformed the ease with which we can live our lives. It’s brought choice, convenience and speed to our leisure and buying habits.
But is it also improving our state of mind? That’s the bigger question.
Does instant make us happy?
Digital technology makes it easier than ever to consume. What you buy could be a new action movie, it could be a new pair of shoes, or it could be your annual holiday.
But are we happier because of this newfound ease in our lives? Is the scope and scale of digital really improving our existence in any kind of meaningful way?
Humans have an innate ability to become accustomed to their surroundings and environments. Put a group of humans in any situation and, eventually, they’ll believe that this is normality. So the danger is that we get used to the ease and choice of digital – that we get blasé about the whole thing.
Think how an affluent, Western teenager feels about owning a smartphone. That’s not a luxury in their world. It’s not ‘new technology’ for them. This is a fundamental part of their life. They stream and listen to their music on it, make and share their photos online with it, chat to their friends on WhatsApp with it and buy their new clothes online with it.
That teenager probably never stops to think ‘Wow, how amazing that this one digital device can provide all these things for me!’. They’re more likely to think ‘This phone is crap. Why can’t I have the new iPhone!? I hate my life!’ and totally forget the privilege that digital has brought them.
So, the threat is there. However easy digital makes our lives, we’ll never be completely satisfied. Like a hungry rabbit on a gym treadmill, we’ll always be chasing a carrot that remains tantalisingly out of reach.
There’s also the debatable question of whether digital gives us more choice – I’ll be talking about that in part 2 next week (try to contain your excitement, folks…).