Live This Book!

My beautiful new “Live This Book!” has just been published by Penguin: a journal that asks you to put pen to paper, and consider what it means to spend time with the things that truly count in life, love, work and leisure. 

Live This Book Cover

I’ll be speaking, writing, collaborating and exploring around it over the coming months: from events at The School of Life and Google to talks on the Southbank, via the BarbicanManchester, and further afield.

If you’re intrigued, please do drop me a line  (tomdotchatfieldatgmaildotcom?subject=Live This Book)  . This isn’t an anti-tech book. But it is about negotiating richer relationships with and through digital tools, and the importance of stepping back from each screen to ask what a rich engagement with life really looks like.

A most intimate relationship

Here’s a piece I particularly enjoyed writing, commissioned by American site 99U: an exploration of the extraordinary intimacy of our relationships with digital tools, and what it means to negotiate with them successfully.

There’s no such thing as a neutral tool. Everything we use wants something from us.

Cars ask us to behave differently than buses or trains or planes; each encodes different ways of thinking about space and movement. A television asks us to sit and watch. Software asks us to interact and respond. Even the subtlest design feature can nudge us towards new actions—like the social scientists who painted a pair of eyes above an honesty box and saw a tripling in donations from people who suddenly felt themselves as being “watched.”

What, then, about the intricacies of one of the closest relationships in modern life—between us and the digital devices we carry with us—and the ways in which we might meaningfully hope to judge this?

I say “relationship,” and it’s a word I mean in all of its ambivalent, yearning, chest-tightening intensity. A few technologies occupy a startlingly intimate place in most modern lives. Our smartphones are among the most sacred and personal of our possessions, rarely out of sight or mind. For many of us, they are the first thing we touch when we wake in the morning and the last thing we touch when we go to bed at night. Continue reading

Are you over-connected?

I’ve been working for a long time on this essay for BBC Future, and am delighted finally to see it online together with some of Josh Pulman’s brilliant photos. The first few paras are below. Do read the whole essay on the BBC Future site.

A group of people wait by a monument, unaware of each other’s existence. A woman strides open-mouthed down a busy street, holding one hand across her heart. Two young men – brothers? – stand behind a white fence, both their heads bowed at the same angle.

These are some of the moments captured in photographer Josh Pulman’s ongoing series called Somewhere Else, which documents people using mobile phones in public places (see pictures). Almost every street in every city across the world is packed with people doing this – something that didn’t exist a few decades ago. We have grown accustomed to the fact that shared physical space no longer means shared experience. Everywhere we go, we carry with us options far more enticing than the place and moment we happen to be standing within: access to friends, family, news, views, scandals, celebrity, work, leisure, information, rumour.

Little wonder that we are transfixed; that the faces in Pulman’s images ripple with such emotion. We are free, if “free” is the right word, to beam stimulation or distraction into our brains at any moment. Via the screens we carry – and will soon be wearing – it has never been easier to summon those we love, need, care about or rely upon.

Yet, as Pulman himself asks, “If two people are walking down the street together both on the phone to someone else, are they really together? And what is the effect on the rest of us of such public displays of emotion, whether it’s anxiety, rage or joy?” To be human is to crave connection. But can our talent betray us? Is it possible to be “overconnected” – and, if so, what does it mean for our future?

Click here to continue reading at BBC Future

Paper vs screens

Here’s a piece I wrote recently for the Guardian, looking at a favourite topic: negotiating the different experiences of print and digital reading and writing, and trying to move beyond the notion that one must be “better” for everything.

My son is 18 months old, and I’ve been reading books with him since he was born. I say “reading”, but I really mean “looking at” – not to mention grasping, dropping, throwing, cuddling, chewing, and everything else a tiny human being likes to do. Over the last six months, though, he has begun not simply to look but also to recognise a few letters and numbers. He calls a capital Y a “yak” after a picture on the door of his room; a capital H is “hedgehog”; a capital K, “kangaroo”; and so on.

Reading, unlike speaking, is a young activity in evolutionary terms. Humans have been speaking in some form for hundreds of thousands of years; we are born with the ability to acquire speech etched into our neurones. The earliest writing, however, emerged only 6,000 years ago, and every act of reading remains a version of what my son is learning: identifying the special species of physical objects known as letters and words, using much the same neural circuits as we use to identify trees, cars, animals and telephone boxes.

It’s not only words and letters that we process as objects. Texts themselves, so far as our brains are concerned, are physical landscapes. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we respond differently to words printed on a page compared to words appearing on a screen; or that the key to understanding these differences lies in the geography of words in the world. Continue reading

Hour of Writes

I was lucky enough recently to judge the weekly writing competition for marvellous writing site Hour of Writes. This is the editorial I wrote about the pleasures and challenges of the experience. 

As I get older, I become more obsessed with time: how I spend it; how it seems to be spent for me by habits, obligations, demands, technologies, nervous tics. I worry that I am losing control of my moments.

I also turn to reading and writing more gratefully than ever, because there is something in the piercing concentration of written language that saves me from this worry.

When a piece of writing touches me, it propels my moments towards coherence. It creates a spaciousness that feels like freedom. And others’ writing makes me want to write myself. I bottle up the need to set words together, carefully, until it is ready.

I believe that dedicating a certain time and space to writing is an exercise in freedom. And, in judging this weekly competition for Hour of Writes, I have experienced a space throbbing with others’ unbottled words; with a sound of souls stretching toward the high notes; with language doing its alchemical thing and turning time into perpetuity.

Am I getting a little over-excited? Quite possibly. This is what happens when you give someone permission to set down syllable after syllable with the promise of an audience. I’m stringing together my moments into a kind of music, and I hope you’re enjoying the tune. Because I have certainly enjoyed yours: the scraps and snatches of story I’ve been granted, the arrows shot from other worlds.

Picking winners is a funny thing with writing. It’s hopelessly subjective, yet it gestures towards the most immense objectivity: the shared, shifting universe of letters. What you write in an hour may echo for years, centuries. It may take your moments and transport them into other minds. If it’s good – and let us, please (if elsewhere) debate what that means, because it’s worth every argument – it might just change everything.

When it comes to words, we’re all in the business of mind-reading. We are astonishingly good at it. Letter by letter, we set in motion the most complex machinery this planet has ever seen.

So. I have picked a winner. I have picked a couple of runners up. I have not found it easy, and I don’t expect you to agree. But I am extremely glad and grateful for the opportunity. And – if you have made it this far, to this dangling clause of an ante-penultimate sentence – I suggest you read on. What will others’ words release in you? We are waiting, wondering, listening into our screens.

Do visit Hour of Writes to browse, discover and write yourself

Maths and the Simpsons

Beneath a cloud of jazz in the bar of London’s Langham hotel, the air crackled with rational fervour. I was sat with three luminaries of the geekish world: Simon Singh (Cambridge PhD in particle physics), bestselling author of Fermat’s Last Theorem and, most recently, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets; Al Jean (Harvard maths degree), head writer and executive producer of The Simpsons; and David X Cohen (Berkeley masters in theoretical computer science), ex-Simpsons writer and executive producer of its sister series Futurama.

Ahead of their evening appearance at the Science Museum, we discussed the delights of cartoons, geek culture, the common ground between comedy and mathematical proofs—and why science means subversion. You can read the full edited transcript of our conversation over on Medium.

The Dark Net

Jamie Bartlett’s new book The Dark Net is the fruit of years’ research into digital crannies dank enough to make concerned parents immolate their child’s iPhone: trolling and cyber-stalking, the politics of hate and terror, the consumption and performance of pornography, illegal drugs and suicide pacts.

It’s a roll call of tabloid bogeymen. But, disappointingly for any journalist in search of straw men to burn, what’s actually on offer is a meticulous, discomforting account of the human stories behind each headline. And perhaps the greatest discomfort on offer is the fact that – no matter how distant the digital underworld may feel from ‘real’ life – the temptation to place it in some safe, separate box proves in every case misguided.

Take the second chapter’s protagonist, Paul. The author first meets Paul in a working men’s club: a young man ‘with a handsome face, short dark hair, and tattoos that climbed up his neck. He was good company… until, that is, talk turned to politics.’ At which point Paul begins to spill out his devotion to a cause: White Pride. ‘What do you think the world will be like under black or Paki or brown rule? Can you imagine it? When we’re down to the last thousand whites, I hope one of them scorches the fucking earth, and everything on it.’

Continue reading

Digital reflections

I was interviewed by the site Create Hub recently, around the idea of “digital reflections” and our everyday relationships with technology. An excerpt is below; click through for the full discussion.

Q: You recently gave a talk on “Digital Reflections” at Southbank Centre. What was the talk about?

A: I was looking at some of our daily relationships with technology – and how these relationships can shape how we think and feel. Many of us have an incredibly intimate relationship with our phones, for example. They are the first objects we touch when we wake in the morning, the last objects we touch when we go to sleep at night; they are always with us, bringing with them many of the things we care about most. Much of the time, this is great. But I worry that if we have an unexamined relationship with tools like our phones, we risk developing a distorted sense of ourselves; of being excessively influenced by our onscreen reflections and projections.

I struggle with this myself. I get anxious if people don’t reply to my emails or texts fast enough; I feel like I’m missing out, or like my life is inadequate, when I scroll through other people’s timelines; I risk turning every moment of every day into the same kind of time, because I always have the same options available onscreen with me. I risk living in a kind of technological bubble – and of being seduced by how cosy and connected it feels in there. And so I try not to react by violently opposing technology, but instead to put it in perspective; to use and experience it differently; to build different kinds of time and space into my life.

Click here to read the full interview

What will our descendants deplore?

I have a new essay on the BBC Future website today, exploring a question that I took to a selection of the world’s brightest minds: from James Lovelock to Peter Singer, via Tim Harford and Greg Bear. The opening is below, and you can read the whole thing on the BBC Future website.

Earlier this year, I had a discussion that made me ask a disconcerting question: how will I be viewed after I die? I like to think of myself as someone who is ethical, productive and essentially decent. But perhaps I won’t always be perceived that way. Perhaps none of us will.

No matter how benevolent the intention, what we assume is good, right or acceptable in society may change. From slavery to sexism, there’s plenty we find distasteful about the past. Yet while each generation congratulates itself for moving on from the darker days of its parents and ancestors, that can be a kind of myopia.

I was swapping ideas about this with Tom Standage, author and digital editor of The Economist. Our starting point was those popular television shows from the 1970s that contained views or language so outmoded they probably couldn’t be aired today. But, as he put it to me: “how easy it is to be self-congratulatory about how much less prejudiced we are than previous generations”. This form of hindsight can be dangerously smug. It can become both a way of praising ourselves for progress rather than looking for it to continue, and of distracting ourselves from uncomfortable aspects of the present.

Far more interesting, we felt, is this question: how will our generation be looked back on? What will our own descendants deplore about us that we take for granted?

Click here to continue reading

Origins of Apple’s command

Over at Medium, I’ve just posted my latest piece of techy-etymological exploration, looking this time at the unlikely origins of Apple’s command key – ⌘ – in pre-medieval Scandinavia.

Known sometimes as the St John’s Arms, it’s a knot-like heraldic symbol dating back in Scandinavia at least 1,500 years, where it was used to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. A picture stone discovered in a burial site in Havor, Gotland, prominently features the emblem and dates from 400-600 AD. It has also been found carved on everything from houses and cutlery to a pair of 1,000-year-old Finnish skis, promising protection and safe travel.

It’s still found today on maps and signs in northern and eastern Europe, representing places of historical interest. More famously, though, it lurks on the keyboard of almost every Apple computer ever made—and in Unicode slot 2318 for everyone else, under the designation “place of interest sign.”

Simply click through here to read the rest of the piece.