How to switch off | Julia Hobsbawm

Survive and thrive in an age of information overload

If I asked how connected you are, you might reply with ‘Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat’ or ‘The Tube, my mobile network and Netflix’. When more than one billion people on the planet were connected in a single day in 2016, and when in a single year this century more data was downloaded than in the whole of human history, you know that our connected world has changed us forever.

My belief is that the change we are undergoing is so rapid and so comprehensive that it has actually given rise to problems we are only just beginning to see or acknow-ledge: rising stress levels (10 million working days a year in the UK lost to ‘stress’) and low productivity (the world’s productivity levels are stubb-ornly stagnant and in some cases dropping, not rising).

Technology is not the only source of the problem but the way we have such blind faith in it and being ‘always on’ is a large part of the problem. But before you think you’re reading someone who hates the digital era and wishes us back in the dark ages when the wheel was the biggest new-fangled invention, I assure you this is not the case. I welcome the connected technology era, I live my life professionally and personally on networks dominated by connected-enable machines, just like we all do.

I just want to manage my connectedness like I do my overall health and well-being. I call this having social health – managing who and what you know, the time you take to be online and offline, to learn and share and socialise and crucially to do so face-to-face more than you are
on Facebook.

Perhaps you already look after your health: you might be shocked to realise that the global market for ‘wellness’ and fitness – that’s everything from vitamins to medit-ation apps, trainers and gym membership – represents more than $3.5 trillion, twice that of the arms trade.

Now it is time for social health. Just like we count calories and carbs and go to the gym, it’s time in our personal and professional lives to work at working out what our healthy levels of connectedness needs to be. That includes having ‘technoshabbats’ offline (mine is weekly, on a Friday night) but it is also about trusting inform-ation I get less from algorithm-led sources and instead for actual people or brands I know – to have five-a-day information diets just like the other kind.

Social health means knowing when to ask someone you work with for a coffee to really find out what they are thinking instead of just hitting ‘reply all’ on the group email. It means reconnecting to the person in the database and reclaiming the value that a human will always have over the machine: our ability to communicate, to tell stories, to relay fact, opinion, to make things happen as a community. Not just as a series of linked nodes on a network.

Julia Hobsbawm’s book Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload is out now in hardback (Bloomsbury, £20) @juliahobsbawm