The Interruptive Society
5th August 2020
Once upon a time, long, long ago, was an era when people hated interruptions. Individuals could go for long periods without their work or reading or study being interrupted. Today, things are very different. Technology now means that we are constantly interrupted. We have an interruptive culture that constantly prevents sustained concentration. People have lost the will to concentrate and their focus is now shallow and easily broken. Telephones ring. Computers notify us constantly. Text messages arrive on our mobile phones. We allow the outside world to intrude on us throughout the day. Our television sets are, on certain channels, interrupted by advertising. It is as though the outside world is not content to let us be but wants always to remind us of something, notify us of tiny, minor details and intrude into our lives every second of the day. The world has become distracted and unable to concentrate. We live in the era of the interruptive society.
The noise of offices
I remember when I used to work in an office (most of my working life.) The telephone rang constantly. There were some jobs where I was expected to make myself constantly available, irrespective of what I was doing so that people could talk to me on the phone or come to my desk and speak to me. When I became my own boss, I was responsible for sales and marketing of my own business. That meant that I had to be constantly available all day and every day in case I received a call from a prospective customer. If the telephone rang, I had to stop working and answer it. I could not afford to ignore it. There was no one else to answer the phone for me. I worked alone. Somehow I had to multitask and design websites (a procedure requiring sustained concentration) and be at the beck and call of existing customers and available to those enquiring about my services who might offer me new business. The later years of my working life were dominated by information technology. Having taken firstly to computers and then to the Internet, my life was dominated by what then was called new technology. I experienced at first hand the technological revolution of the twentieth century. That revolution brought us all the flowering of freely available information. It is unintended consequence was its intrusion into our lives.
The corrosion of silence
One of the principal sources of this culture of intrusiveness has been the Internet. Prior to the discovery and exploitation of electricity, educated people would read books for long periods of time. In non-literary households, people would talk to each other until it was time to sleep. I say this because I want to highlight the difference between life as it was and life as it has now become. It is a transition of which we are hardly aware. Because we are largely unaware of being interrupted we take it for granted as a fact of life. Unlike our ancestors, we now expect to be constantly interrupted. Being unaware of this, we are unable to assess how it affects us. We take it for granted and therefore fail to consider it critically. For those who have grown up with mobile phones and the Internet, being interrupted all day long is just a fact of life. It’s just how the world is. We know of nothing else. Our lives are lived in an environment of noise. Most of that noise is information. We also live in a noisy environment. Traffic creates far more sound pollution in the age of the motorcar and tarmacked roads, than was the case in the era of horse-drawn conveyances. Noise is all around us. Even when we get in a lift or go shopping, music is being played in the background. Music is forced into our ears whether we like it or not. When I get to visit my friend, in the flat below, he tells Alexa to play music. I did not go down there to listen to music. I went down to talk to him. When I am having a conversation, I cannot also listen to music. Even when I am alone, writing, I cannot have music playing in the ‘background.’ Either I listen to music or I write. I cannot do both at once. Or I should say I choose not to do both at once? I have become averse to ambience. I no longer care for music as part of the ambience of a room. Music that is worth listening to requires undivided attention. If it is just background sound, then I would prefer to be without it. I have tried to write, while listening to music of my choice, through my headphones. The last time I did this, two things happened: firstly, the doorbell rang and I failed to notice it until it was too late. Secondly, the phone rang but I failed to hear it ringing and so missed the call. I then decided not to have my headphones on. When people go to a concert hall, to listen to an orchestra performing, they must (or should) switch off their mobile phones. I remember being at the theatre and, before the play began, an announcement would be read out asking members of the audience to either turn off their phones or to put them on silent. Most people now do that as a matter of course. This does not happen when people are watching television. Viewers are happy to be interrupted by callers. Especially if they need to be available to relatives or loved-ones. Understandable. There are more important things in life than light entertainment.
The invention of the telephone
1876 was an iconic year in the development of Western civilisation. It was the year in which Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in the United States. By the outbreak of the first world war, in 1914, there were ten people for every telephone in the US. By the second world war, this rate had doubled. In the United Kingdom, Bell demonstrated the telephone to Queen Victoria on 14th January 1878 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight with calls to London, Cowes and Southampton. These were the first long-distance calls in the UK. note 1 From then on, telephones began their rise to ubiquity. In 1914, a submarine cable was laid between Dover and Dunkirk and a third automatic telephone exchange was opened at Hereford. By the 1930s, telephones were commonly found in affluent English homes. In 1921, red telephone boxes began to appear on our streets. They were called ‘telephone kiosks’ and were designed by Sir Charles Gilbert Scott, better known for his architectural design for the Cambridge University Library, among other things.
Today most homes have a landline and this has been enhanced by the growth in the use of the Internet, brought into houses via the landline. Even when individuals have a mobile phone, many like the reassurance of having access to a landline in case there is a problem with their mobile signal. Like many other people, if I need to make a telephone call, I use my mobile phone, rather than my landline. Calls made before 18:00 hours are charged; whereas, on my mobile service, calls to UK landlines and other mobile numbers are free. I rarely use my landline to make outgoing calls.
With the introduction of mobile phones came text messaging. The Short Message Service. There are people today who expect to receive a constant flow of text messages and also to send them. It is a lifestyle characteristic for most people who own mobile phones. Not only messages sent by human beings, but also automatically generated notifications. My smartphone stores all the SMS texts that I either receive or send until I choose to delete them. That can be useful. I also have the ability to store telephone messages together with large amounts of other data that can be extracted from my handset and stored on my computer. Because my phone is not connected to either the Internet or to Wi-Fi, I am not plagued with notifications coming in through Apps that constantly page their sources. I have freed myself of the constant flow of noise from the mobile service via Apps and social media. If I want to know what my friends have said on Facebook, I log on to it and find out. I do not need to know what people post on Facebook in real-time.
According to one source, UK phone users were sending 217 million texts per day. ‘Britons are sending an average of 60 million more text messages per day from their mobile phones than they did this time last year, according to the latest industry figures’ of October 2008. note 2 In 2012, it was claimed that the ‘UK is texting more than talking.’ note 3 While voice calls over the mobile phone networks were in decline, texting and sending communications online were increasing. The same source reported that the average Briton sends 50 texts a week. At the time, two-fifths of UK adults owned a smartphone. Alongside this, people are using social media networks as a way of communicating. Letter writing has declined considerably since the rise of new technology. The sending of greetings cards has not declined as much as the sending of letters through the post. Today, there has been a massive increase in the number of parcels being sent through the mail because of the increase in online ordering. Orders placed online constantly send notifications of when they have been despatched and when they will be delivered.
The picture that emerges is one of a society that has a mobile phone that is permanently switched on and which could interrupt its owners, for either an incoming phone call or text message, or notification or alert, at any time of the day or night. Not just the telephone system – notifications are being sent to people via the Internet by social media platforms. Take Facebook for example. There are settings on Facebook that allow account holders to be notified about all sorts of things. Some people get a barrage of such notifications all day long, every day of their lives. It is no wonder that we see people totally absorbed in looking at mobile phone screens for long periods of time. Modern people want to be ‘in the know.’ They fear missing things that might be mentioned by their friends or relatives. Being notified of everything has become an obsession.
Answering the phone
My life is very different. I started to write this article at 08:30 this morning. It is now just coming up to 09:30. In the past hour, my mobile phone had not rung or bleeped once. It is switched on but it is not connected to the Internet. Although it is a smartphone, I do not have it connected to the Internet. My landline has not received an incoming call since the day before yesterday when I got an unwanted sales company trying to ask me questions (which I refused to answer.) The only interruption I have had whilst writing this essay is the cat demanding to be fed. How could I write if I were constantly interrupted? Writing an essay requires sustained concentration over long periods of time. At various points in the last hour, I have looked things up on the Internet as part of my research for this article. Apart from that, I have worked in silence and without being notified of anything happening in the world outside.
If I decide I need to know what the news headlines are, I can go to the BBC website and read them. If my friend calls me on the mobile phone I can decide whether I wish to stop working and have a conversation or ignore the call and carry on writing. In the evenings I watch films, documentaries or series on live television or I watch those that are streamed on Netflix. If I am watching a particularly engaging or enthralling programme, I will ignore telephone calls and call back after the programme has finished. There are times when I simply do not want to miss any part of what I am watching. If I am watching something online, I might pause it while I have a conversation on the phone, if what I am watching is not that important to me. I do not have the ability to pause live, broadcast television. If I really want to watch a programme then I will not allow myself to be interrupted by an incoming telephone call or even a text message. The same also applies when I am reading a book. If the telephone rings, I might answer the call or I might not. It all depends on how engaged I am in my reading. If the book is important to me, I am engaged in what is called deep reading. That is something that should not be interrupted. It engages us deeply in its story.
A lot of people are content to be interrupted all day long by phone calls and text messages. If this was not a feature of their daily lives (because the service was not available) they would feel isolated and unhappy. But what does this culture of interruptiveness do to people? How does it affect their consciousness? To explore these question I turned to the work of Nicholas Carr. In his book The Shallows. How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, Carr examines how society has become interruptible in many different ways. His thesis is expounded in chapter seven: The Juggler’s Brain. What effect, Carr asks, has the Internet had on the way our minds work? The next 28 pages of his book address the question. So, it is not a question that can be dismissed briefly. The culture of being constantly interrupted changes the way our brains work and affect our consciousness. Our brains are constantly switching from one activity to another. How can we learn something or understand complex explanations if we are continually distracted? Why do we need to be constantly notified of anything and everything? Why can we not take time out from the constant ebb and flow of information life to engage deeply with words or music? Do we have to go to concerts in order to freely engage music in a setting where everyone is enjoying the same thing at the same time without interruption? I wonder if we will start to enjoy mass reading sessions where everyone reads a book collectively and where mobile phones are turned off. If we do something as part of a large group does that justify doing it in isolation and being free from interruptions? What is wrong with an individual enjoying a deep experience alone and free from the incursions of the outside world? One reason is to do with parenting. Parents want to be available to their children on the phone at any time of the day or not. I can sit here in silent isolation and ignore telephones ringing because I am not responsible for anyone else. There is no need for me to be alerted to any situation happening in the outside world. I realise, however, there there are an awful lot of people who must allow themselves to be called, interrupted or alerted because other people’s lives depend on it.
The value of deep comprehension
Today’s society is based on the constant and rapid provision of information. Many of the websites I visit each day offer to send me emails or notifications about their topic or subject matter. I do sometimes subscribe to these offers if I am researching something where I need to know the latest news. I see such things only when I log on to my email and read it. I read my various email accounts every day but not all day. When I have finished with my email, I log out. I do not receive emails on my mobile phone. People now have become used to being interrupted. They expect it. There is, for them, no alternative. Occasionally a few people suddenly realise what they are missing out on – silence. Silence is not just the absence of sound. It is also freedom from noise. The noise of daily life. We need moments of silence in order to think, take stock, meditate. Meditation requires complete freedom from the noise of daily life. Even if life is happening all around us, when we meditate our minds disengage from it. Letting go of our senses allows us to retreat into our inner world and enter a silence in which our minds can focus or become empty of all that matters. Most people will have an image in their minds of a monk sitting cross-legged with closed eyes. It is a familiar image. That kind of meditation is practised by religions and in yoga. Not everyone needs to sit cross-legged to meditate. I meditate sitting on a typing stool, my fingers jabbing at the keyboard. It is what I am doing now. Meditating about my theme of interrupted living and thinking what to type into the page before me. I am doing this in silence. I am completely focused. I do not want to be interrupted. In this kind of writing, I am not diving into the world wide web searching for information. I am allowing my mind to come up with thoughts – my own thoughts. That means a lot to me. I have done this for a long time – most of my life. Today there are millions of people around this country who are locked into their homes in self-isolation because of the coronavirus epidemic. Many of them will be alone. The virus epidemic has forced people out of their life-long routines and confined them to their homes. For many people, that is very difficult. They are not used to it. The lockdown has been in force, in this country, for about five weeks now (April 2020.) Many people will find it a traumatic experience. Busy working people suddenly find they have little to do. Armies of advisors have appeared on social media showing people how to do things to pass the time or simply how to keep fit. The Internet has become a torrent with people desperately staying in touch with others, with loved-ones or simply trying to break the awful tedium of not being at work. It is an odd reversal of fortune that I am still at work; still typing articles and essays. Just as I have done since I retired from employment some years ago. For me, the epidemic has not changed much in my life. For others, it is had been a life-changing experience. Lots of people have had to work from home. At the office, they were constantly interrupted by colleagues wanting to talk to them. Now, they have to work in a focussed way without the constant stream of interruptions.
If we shield ourselves from constant interruptions we can focus deeply on reading or writing. or we can meditate. That increases our mindfulness. If we switch off our mobile phones and put out computers on silent (no notifications about anything) we can begin to think, work and experience our minds as our forebears did. We can fully concentrate on what we are doing. It will, at first, be an unnerving experience for most people who have become used to the constant noise of information and notifications. I am used to this kind of silence. I grew up in a world that was free from the interruptions of new technologies. In my bubble of silence, my mind can focus on thinking. Most people just accept that the world around them is the world how it is and how it needs to be. Refusing to accept that as normal can be the start of something really exciting.
1 Quoted from https://www.britishtelephones.com/histuk.htm
2 Quoted from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/3358960/UK-phone-users-send-217-million-text-per-day-says-study.html
3 Quoted from https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/media-releases/2012/uk-is-now-texting-more-than-talking