John Bird: Don’t look up, it’s bad for business

There is nothing new about addiction. And there’s nothing new about big companies making big profits out of it

I listened to Nick Clegg, now working for Facebook, on the radio talking about the need to do more so that our children are not damaged by the social platform revolution and the digital revolution that has over-swept the world.

Nick Clegg you will remember was the junior partner in the recent coalition government that brought austerity and a hollowing-out to our communities, through cutting local government support.

The precursor you might say to the politics of Brexit. That sense of that local austerity-engineered emptiness produced the rejection of Europe by the majority of those who voted in the referendum.

You reap what you sow. Of course, Clegg may have tried in the coalition to modify some of the excesses of cuts, but now he is off with Facebook, and trying to put a good face on Facebook itself. Make it presumably look more reasonable.

I think Nick Clegg has got one of the most reasonable, thoughtful and kindly voices, encouraging to a T, I have ever heard in British politics. And now he has that reasonableness available for the vast Facebook corpus. It was a great coup for Facebook to get this guy on their side.

The problem is that you only have to take your son to school and look at the enormous flotilla of schoolchildren not looking at the traffic or the birds tweeting on the naked winter trees, but buried in their phones, to realise that you have a problem of epidemic proportions. An illness in the making. A meltdown of dynamic intellectual proportions.

A death of the old way and the creation of a new way, where constant entertainment and distraction become the order of the day.

I blame Elvis. It’s all his fault. I woke up one day aged 10 and jumped out of bed and scoffed my two shredded wheat to rush around the corner to my mates who had a record player to listen to Blue Suede Shoes again and again and again, before we reluctantly took the bus to school. Where all we talked about was Elvis and music and dancing around.


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The only problem now is that technology, with enormous fortunes being created out of it, brings a vast repertoire of distraction to anyone able to own a phone. Elvis and the music revolution he led was fuelled because big record companies could get bigger out of youthful appetite for distraction. But now all of those companies that provided young people with their distractions are dwarfed by the enormous billions and billions and billions when a third of the world is connected with you.

Is human life really about dull interludes for school and work, followed by music and film and distractions? Is that what we are all about?

We know that Greta Thunberg objects to that, rejects that, and told the Davos attendees last week. And Donald Trump was there to give a view that suggested that we don’t need to listen to little Scandanavian Jeremiahs. Hope and optimism will get us out of the sticky stuff.

But extinction is being prepared on the road to school, so it seems. When virtually every child is caught up in gawking and absorbing. That recreation of the human being to become an extension of their gadget.

But it is not this generation, but former generations that started the post-war distraction game. We have had 70 years of an increasing emphasis on getting out of our heads on TV, and now followed by gadgets. Whereas once we talked obsessively about the latest detective show on last night’s TV in the playground, the show has moved on to even more social control and the diminishing of us into addicts for our mobiles.

We do seem to be going the wrong way in our complete dependency on technology. It’s been coming this way since HG Wells wrote about new weaponry in The War of the Worlds. But he saw it as weapons that we could not stand up against. And it was Martians who invaded us.

Technology, with enormous fortunes being created out of it, brings a vast repertoire of distraction to anyone able to own a phone

The invasion though of today is from California’s Silicon Valley. We don’t need foreign aliens. We just need investors in pursuit of profit, enormous, out this world profits.

Money and capital and addiction neatly come together with the digital revolution. Though of course there have been advances mixed in with the mind-numbing of our children. I can now turn off my boiler remotely and have all sorts of medical procedures that owe their development to the digital age.  Win-win you might say. Distance learning! Wonderful things.

But seeing our children locked into gadgets does make it feel that extinction can’t be far behind.

Do remember that the pursuit of comforts that can be got from profits that create addiction are ages old.

Perhaps the ultimate example of that must be the 19th-century British opium trade to China, where Great Britain used its navy to stop China from banning the opium dens that British opium companies supplied. Firing on Chinese cities with long-range guns was not capitalism’s finest hour.

Health warnings should be attached to all phones. “They fuck your mind”, or some such words, could be a good start.

There is nothing new about addiction. And there’s nothing new about big companies making big profits out of it.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief  of The Big Issue