Ideas for modern living: digital scepticism

Ahead of speaking at the School of Life in London, I wrote the Observer’s “ideas for modern living” column on the topic of digital scepticism. Below is the unedited version.

“The internet is making us stupid.” This accusation has been heard on many lips recently. Yet the real problem may lie in the other direction: that people are simply too clever. For we are extraordinarily good at conjuring stories, ideas and even personalities from very little information. Show someone a few dozen pixels and they’ll see a human face. Give someone a few hundred words of text and a couple of images, and they’ll translate this into a life story.

When it comes to the increasing number of people with whom our primary contact is digital rather than physical, this process of invention and inference begins to matter. I change my Facebook status from “married” to “single” and a dozen shocked messages arrive; I tweet that I’m at a party in London and start swapping messages with friends, despite the fact that I’m actually sitting at home alone. You may not think that everything I’m saying is true—but you’re unlikely to realise just how far from the truth I’ve strayed. And my messages leave a permanent, falsified record.

We’re far from helpless, of course. A crucial facet of human cleverness is our sensitivity to social tone. We have fine ears for the bogus: the half-truths of a press release; the MP whose social media presence is fabricated by special advisors. Digital media, however, fosters a particular kind of illusion: that what we are getting is a “live,” unvarnished insight into others’ lives. The artificiality that other media wear on their sleeves is far less clear. And yet it is there. Reading all of the texts in our lives with a sceptical eye has rarely been more important.