A Barefoot Trek into the Digital Realm

One of the beliefs at the heart of this article is that common sense is still your most reliable guide.

Many people do not regard their own common sense and instincts as a reliable source of information to guide their day to day decisions. Over the years people have lost trust in self knowledge as a reliable guide to daily decisions, and look to someone or something else for the answers, preferably a scientific authority.  Many people now look to the sources of information in the digital realm and pick up digital devices for guidance and knowledge before thinking for themselves. You might call that “informed decision making”, and it is just that. Yet the ability to make decisions without relying always on external sources as a kind of crutch, is also a useful, and sometimes vital, tool in life.

They “google” for scientific evidence and advice to tell them what to do and what not to do. And they google about whether digital devices themselves and the internet are good or bad. Not surprisingly they often find at the top of their search results plenty of “evidence” and “authoritative opinion” giving reassuring platitudes that the digital realm is an almost entirely benevolent place, that there is no “significant” evidence that computer games or TV are bad for your kids, that mobile phones are in no way physically harmful, and that sustained use of social media has little or no measured harmful impact in family or personal life.  For example, The European Commission Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR)[5] concludes that the three lines of evidence they examined, which are animal, in vitro, and epidemiological studies, indicate that “exposure to RF (radio frequency) fields is unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in humans”.

So, here we have a resounding “Unlikely”.

And then, the thirteen  nation INTERPHONE project – the largest study of its kind ever undertaken ”did not find a solid link between mobile phones and brain tumours.”

Those searching then find another set of links to authoritative studies demonstrating the patent physical risk and psychological harm that digital devices and their sustained use can do to us. For example, In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) offered a classification for mobile phone radiation as Group 2B – possibly carcinogenic (Possibly cancer-causing). That means that there might be some kind of risk of carcinogenicity, so they suggest that further research into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones needs to be conducted.

I spent about a week looking at the evidence for physical and psychological harm from sustained use . You can sum it two conflicting views: “Probably” and “Unlikely” which has left most of us with a big “Maybe” or “Possibly”. Life is full of maybes, so hey, let’s all dive in anyway, the water looks fine.

So, on balance, those searching for evidence one way or the other find most reported scientific research to be inconclusive, but often in the way it is reported, erring very much on the side of “there’s no established or firmly conclusive evidence of harm”. (At least, so far). So, it’s all good to go, and your common sense instincts may well just be harmful and, at best, marking you out as an out of touch dinosaur or spoiler. Your personal concerns are probably just a sign that you are the one exception that proves the rule.

Scientific research has a mixed record when it comes to deciding what is or isn’t harmful to human beings. Some scientists once claimed that smoking was actually good for you. Often it is only over the longer run that the real effects of a new development in technology, in medicine, or in culture really manifests itself. And often the research claiming that a new technology isn’t harmful or that its harm has been overstated is funded by the very corporations developing and marketing those technologies. Much research into the effects of smoking was (and is) carried out by the tobacco industry.

We don’t definitively know if aspects of the digital age are doing us harm. On 26th April 2012, the BBC reported that according to the UK’s Health Protection Agency, there is still no evidence of harm to human health from using mobile phones. They found no conclusive links to negative effect on brain function, cancer risk or fertility.Only a year before, the World Health Organisation was also reported by the BBC as saying that mobile phones are “possibly carcinogenic”. Back in 2008, research carried out by Dr Siegal Sadetzki, suggested a “possible” link between heavy mobile phone use and cancer.

It will harm you. It won’t harm you. It may harm you. We just don’t yet know…

Equally, in the realm of social science, we have reports of regular computer gaming influencing the negative behaviours of children, even  inspiring violence that can reach as far as murder.And then we have evidence to the contrary, that these fears and concerns are overstated, that violent games can even awaken children to its horrors and nurture more peaceful instincts in them. In this case, digitally laying waste to a planet of aliens can help you to realise that killing is bad here on Earth.

My nephew played violent computer games throughout his childhood and he’s such a nice young man now…

A lot of parents I have spoken to are worried that their children are going to become desensitised to violence and suffering by watching it and playing at it online so often. But they shouldn’t worry you see, because they are just a sample of one, and, you see, there’s no conclusive statistical evidence. Until there is, let’s assume it is alright…

I’m not kidding you. Many parents who, make very conscious decisions in other aspects of their lives, seem to default to “wait and see and do it in the meantime” in regards to computer use.They look online, find an academic bun fight, shake their heads and head back into submission.

Though not all parents of course. Many are more than able to hold their own in the world we inhabit. I usually find them to be calmer, a bit more measured in their pacing of their lives, but most of all, they have huge trust in their own instincts and also in the instincts of those they instinctively trust.

We search for a definitive answer in relation to the digital realm – is it good for us or not? – and we don’t find one.

So, many of us try to follow our own common sense. Fears and self-doubt creep in. If we limit these new technologies we worry we are depriving our kids of a technological miracle and they will hate us, we don’t want them to feel like the ‘odd ones out’ when their friends have the latest devices and are so digitally savvy. If the schools are now integrating computer skills then it must be important, they will need these skills for future employment. We are afraid of our children falling behind, not getting into good universities, not getting a good job…..and besides, what do we know when compared to the knowledge of scientists and “experts”?

In my own hometown I did a little research exercise. I looked at the adverts that all of our independent and private schools are placing in local magazines and online. I focused on the early years – pre-school and primary age (up until about eleven). Around half were promising more natural play, a chance to be children in playgrounds, in the woods, through sports and in the classroom by being creative, curious and playful. The child is promised to remain a child with a curriculum that recognises individuality. The other half were promising similar things but delivered around their commitment to preparing these young ones for the modern technological world. This is done by each child getting an IPad with bespoke software that nurtures creativity and collaboration, play and curiosity as well as a range of motor and intellectual skills via the digital technology. In the adverts there’s an almost polarised choice on offer for younger children: digital or not digital. There are images of children, sitting together, eyes lit up, smiling in wonder and joy at the content on their devices, their fingertips poised to learn and play…

Somewhere inside of us, an instinct tells us: surely it can’t all be good, can it? We see our friends pulling out their mobiles in the street even as they walk along, and we wonder if there might be something not quite right about that. An instinct tells us, even as the digital industry says: use these delights until we know for sure whether they have harmed you – that this isn’t quite right. As someone tears along talking into a headset, for many of us, something seems a bit off key. It’s our common sense possibly speaking, though we are told it is probably our fear and our ignorance so we default to the crowd or the authority line.

When did we launch medicines onto the world that hadn’t been fully or properly trialled? Oh yes, we did do that: it was called Thalidomide. Pregnant women trusted their Doctors who trusted their medical reps who trusted the scientists’ proclamations of a new “wonder drug” for insomnia, coughs, colds and of course famously “morning sickness” in pregnant women. The scientists, the ‘experts’ at the time, and this was only 60 years ago, ‘believed’ that drugs didn’t cross the placental barrier – yet knowledge existed at that time about alcohol crossing the placental barrier and damaging babies. This drug caused severe malformations in babies, affecting over ten thousand children in over forty-six countries before it was finally banned.

The startling growth of the new ‘greatest wonder’ of digital technology is already being discussed by many worried experts as having negative behavioural, psychological and neurophysiological effects on both children and adults. But do we need ‘experts’ to tell us this? Common sense alone surely tells us that it must be changing the way we think and feel and do. When did it become okay to wait and see if at least some of this stuff might just be screwing with our bodies and minds? No evidence yet…so dive in.

People are ceasing to trust their instincts, the wisdom of their “elders” (sage advice from granny) and defaulting to the popular behaviour because it is better to go with scepticism about the softer stuff, dare I even suggest the spiritual aspects of our lives – our peace of mind, our belief in the importance of calm, the sacredness of mealtimes and sleep, and the deeper connections between us that might just require our fuller, non-distracted attention. Combine the digital realm with notions of scientific credibility and coolness, and it can be hard to weigh that against an instinct that says “Let’s claim back a bit our sacred family time,” or “Let’s use these gadgets a lot more consciously.” And we fear to be labelled as weak, or ignorant, or “uncool”. (Just you watch some of the attacks that are going to be levelled against this article). Those who challenge the right of the digital realm to continue unimpeded are often met with cries of “Party pooper!” and “Spoiler!”. It isn’t only your kids who will try that on. It’s also your peers, and even your parents!

There are some fairly definitive books in this field. Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together is based on years of research and one of her conclusions is that perhaps it is time to take a mindful pause and reflect on what this digital age is doing to us and our kids, before diving even further in. Innovation of new products is running way ahead of the scientific community’s ability to research it thoroughly, perhaps more than any other field in human history. Jaron Lanier also points to the dangers of “lockdown” and a kind of benevolent entanglement that can lead to we, the user, being the gadget for the digital world – behaving predictably, influenced and directed by systems we aren’t wholly aware of with only simplistic and often caricatured notions of the motives of the corporations controlling us. What if we are becoming the gadget?

Time for a pause? Time for reflection? Time to gain a bit personal mastery over all this new stuff? The phone vibrates, the screen lights up – I pick it up. But did I really decide to pick it up, or was I induced to pick it up by a digital system that needs me to feed it with attention in order to build up statistics that satisfy shareholders and raise advertising revenues? Is the last thing I really need to do at night (and the first thing in the morning) to check my Facebook page, or is it to share some warmth and intimacy with my partner who lies next to me? But surely, it can’t do any harm? I mean, there’s no evidence one way or the other, is there?

There I go – I’m already party pooping. I promise you, that isn’t the main intention of this article. This article has been written in response to numerous requests from people who feel ill-equipped to hold their own in the digital realm, overwhelmed and worried by it. So, I’ve decided to give the whole thing a bit of a hard time and treat it as if it weren’t all benevolent and problem-free. I’m looking for trouble in order to minimise risk and danger. I’m focusing on the danger points in order, not to deny the digital realm, but to create ways to play more safely in it, and recover ourselves if we feel we have accidentally fallen into a bar and started to drink everything behind the counter.

Next comes all the psychological evidence that digital attachment isn’t the same as an addiction. Does my three hours on the computer, three hours watching TV and two hours of calling and texting per day, represent an addiction, especially if I keep doing it, am drawn to it, and find it impossible to cut down or stop?

Despite stories of digital addiction, again we look for evidence in the scientific realm, find it selectively reported via our online searches and find that there’s no definitive statement from science, a science that all too often has tended towards “use it as much as you like until we have enough evidence to say it might have harmed you.”

It isn’t good for you. There’s no evidence it isn’t good for you. It might or might not be good for you. It might be something you can become addicted it. No, it’s something that lies outside of traditional addiction.

We seek guidance via search engines and find the evidence is saying this or that. As the writer Bernard Lievegoed once said, we live in an age where statistics can be brought in favour or against almost anything and it becomes impossible to know what is the right thing to do, based on these statistics, in a given situation. It is often polarised – are you for or against? In or out? Is it good or bad? Do you leave or stay? We can never know for sure, in a situation, if we are doing the right thing. We’ll usually only know when we see the consequences after the fact. What we can hold to is our motive, what we are willing. So, it becomes important to try to become as conscious of our will in the present moment as possible. Being conscious and able to direct our will in real time – that sounds like freedom to me. At the moment in the digital realm, the best we have for that is instinct and common sense, because all the statistics are at each others’ throats.

Lievegoed, in much of his work, highlights that perhaps all we can do in such a maelstrom of confusion is to hold fast to something that can offer simplicity and power for us: our own motive to do the good, experience the beauty of the world, confirmed by our feeling, and to think true thoughts. Easily said!

In our lifetime, we may never find out if this massive digital age has helped or harmed our kids and families or we may find out too late; but what are we trying to do? What is to be done? What’s our motive for taking ourselves and our kids into the digital realm for literally hours a day?

What stories from people in our neighbourhoods and from our own life experience can also guide us? What is our definition of the “good”? If our motive is one of kindness to our friends and family, then we surely do not wish them harm. And when we reach into that intuitive part of our selves, what does it say to us about children on tablet PCs for five hours a day, about toddlers watching murder and rape on TV screens (or even sexualised mermaids in cartooned versions of our favourite fairy stories? What is your gut feeling about parents who greet their children at the school gates without so much as a millisecond of eye contact as they say a distracted “Hi” and gaze at their text messages? Some research from Sherry Turkle suggests that those children that don’t even get a tiny millisecond of eye contact are the ones who end up watching the others climbing the trees or the monkey bars.

What does your heart tell you about families who rarely if ever eat together around the same kitchen table, who have little or no eye contact with each other? And what about children who, when they try to make a picture of something in their minds or drawing on paper, find that whatever they try to create is replaced by an image from a film, an advert or a computer game? It looms into their inner view, covering the blank canvas of their original imagination, a canvas they soon forget completely and become creatures who simply spout copy and version. Applying your own motive to do the good for those in your life, what does your intuition tell you about the goodness of all that?

Is this yet another rant against the digital age? I’m  a regular and enthusiastic embracer of the digital realm. I write in it, interact in it, digitally meet others in it. I’ve made film with it and played in it. It is collective human genius in action.

No, it is a call to be careful, to be mindful and to reach into your own instincts and walk more consciously in this digital “inferno” a wave of change that has washed over us for over half a century and changed our lives in ways that reach right into our bedrooms and living rooms.

We read stories and we are often told they aren’t ‘scientific’ because they are “just stories”. This is of course a very narrow view of science. And not all scientists agree with that view. We used to learn from stories and some people still choose to. It’s common sense to pick up local wisdom from your community and timeless wisdom from tradition and myth. You can then measure it against your own internal instincts and experiences, draw from your own personal life story. A lot of the most useful and usable knowledge and wisdom I’ve picked up about and in the digital realm has been from stories from fellow travellers. Travellers’ tales…

Now, let me throw in a word: Sceptocracy. Sceptocracy describes government by scepticism where laws stopping people from believing or acting on anything that doesn’t pass the sceptic’s test. (We might even find one day we are fined in such a society for not being sceptical enough) Not being sceptical is seen as a kind of crime against humanity. And, in current popular society, scepticism is often represented by dominant scientific materialism – if there aren’t statistically significant results to prove something is true, then that something isn’t proven and we cannot legislate anything based upon it. Common sense isn’t scientific, and is therefore to be ignored, even stopped. Faith has also gone out of the window, consigned to religion which, according to sceptocrats is not only to be disbelieved, but also to be legislated against. Even if a homeopathic remedy “works” for my child, even if there are thousands of stories supporting the use of a particular remedy, if that remedy can’t pass the test of scientific materialism, we are right to be sceptical about it. Because sceptocrats believe that their approach to science is common sense, then that means, in their view, that everything else is not common sense. That would be fair enough if it were just another viewpoint to persuade us or not. But in a sceptocracy, this ideology begins to control us all, whatever our view sor habits, and even find its way into research funding, and even the laws that govern us all.

Sceptocrats want to make homeopathy illegal, and are succeeding in parts of the world. Now, this isn’t an argument in favour of homeopathy. It is simply pointing to a development in our culture, largely unnamed, that puts scientific data always above personal experience. Where it is banned, homeopathy is not allowed by be named as common sense by those choosing to use it. It is even relabelled as nonsense and legislated against, even as a pharmacist finds out they they regularly sell out of the remedy for teething, day after day, year after year, because for the mothers who buy it, and are woken each night by their crying child, it “works”.

In a society based on scepticism as a default, your own direct experience is less reliable that a scientific, statistical study. This would even be acceptable if you own personal stories weren’t part of broader, unique contexts, influences and subtle effects that a double-blind trial usually is unable to, or refuses to include (often down to time and funding). Our personal stories are richer, deeper and more complex than bounded data sets. Often we trust our own instincts because they can’t easily be defined – they are gut feelings not head opinions.

Well, get this. I’m daring to place value on common sense, the common sense many people trust and use every day, born of experience, stories and shared learning. I’m placing faith in gut feelings, in local stories, in barefoot trips through the digital inferno, where it often became necessary to wear protective boots! This is a view that says we should we more awake and aware than we are, that we need to place the digital world more consciously and skillfully in our physical lives. If your common sense resonates with that, then this i a view you’ll resonate with. If you want to join the scientific mud match going on out there, then get googling. There! I just googled at 13:12 on September 29th 2013. I googled “Mobile phone” and “children”. Here are the top two links

The second link is a web site reporting a study into mobile effects on children and pregnant women. According to John Wargo, Ph.D., professor of Environmental Risk and Policy at Yale University and author of a report from February 2012 by US health charity EHHI: “The scientific evidence is sufficiently robust showing that cellular devices pose significant health risks to children and pregnant women. The weight of the evidence supports stronger precautionary regulation by the federal government. The cellular industry should take immediate steps to reduce emission of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from phones and avoid marketing their products to children.”

So, there you have it! And what was link number one in the same web search? It was a new story of the influential Daily Telegraph newspaper, based in the UK. It is dated 28th August 2013 and the headline is: “Top 5 mobile phones for school kids. “

I trust you, the reader, to meet what is written and offered here with your good old instincts. Trust them. Agree or disagree, use what works for you. You might just find plenty of scientific evidence online supporting or denying what you will read between these pages. And, most certainly, look for evidence, for or against, Find evidence if you can. Act on it if your instincts tell you to. Explore this digital world from as many different points of view as you can. I’m a trained social scientist, a philosopher, a life coach, a theatre director and playwright. I’ve taught in schools and colleges, and I’ve engaged in the digital world. I’ve dived in, I’ve swam. I’ve nearly drowned. I trust my instincts, and I put faith in yours.

Let’s walk together into the digital inferno and see if we can step safely with our families, or at least lessen the damage and consciously take hold of the benefits.

Paul Levy
Brighton, UK, September, 2013, sitting at a wooden cafe table, typing onto a laptop.

Some References and Background Reading

Gemini Adams, Facebook Diet, The : 50 Funny Signs of Facebook Addiction and Ways to Unplug With a Digital Detox by Gemini Adams, Live Consciously, 2013

Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, Polity Press, 2012

Archibald D. Hart and Sylvia Hart Frejd, The Digital Invasion: How Technology Is Shaping You And Your Relationships, Baker Books, 2013

Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto [Paperback], Penguin Books, 2011,

Bernard Lievegoed, Towards the 21st Century,  Steiner Books, 1989

Sonia Livingstone, Children and the Internet, Polity, 2009

Sara Marzougui, Life without it, Amazon Kindle, 2012

Sue Palmer, Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It, Orion, 2007

Simon Pont, Digital State: How the Internet is Changing Everything, Kogan Page, 2013

Howard Rheinghold., How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think, Edited by John Brockman, Atlantic Books London, 2011137

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, John Murray, 2013

Mark Slouka, War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality, Basic Books, 1996

Eugene Schwartz, Millenial Child, http://www.millennialchild.com/ – various articles

Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, Basic Books, 2011

Ethan Zuckerman, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection,  W. W. Norton & Co., 2013

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on November 22, 2013, in A Barefoot Trek into the Digital Realm. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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