Belfast Telegraph

Computers are now the curse of the reading classes

Where are they now, those brave little books released into the community last Saturday - World Book Day - sometimes delivered by the very hand that wrote them?

Many, I fear, will already be languishing under coffee cups, blocking draughts from windows, or gathering dust on a shelf, serving a strictly ornamental purpose.

The good-hearted people who were giving away books in the hope of winning new converts to literature were, unfortunately, not able to provide those other essential ingredients that reading requires: time and a modicum of solitude.

Leisure now demands as much effort as work. It is easier to be swept along on the babbling torrent of busy, interactive, chatty modern life than to allow oneself the time to read a book, to listen to music, or even to think.

A survey has just been published which reveals that, of 5,000 people questioned, more than one in four admitted to lying regularly about what they have done over the weekend. Most claimed to have gone out with friends on a Saturday night, while others invented dinner parties or claimed to have gone for a weekend break.

"It's the horrible feeling that everyone else is having a better time than us," a Professor of Stating-the-Bleeding-Obvious Studies has concluded, without asking why staying at home should be associated with dullness and boredom. The compulsion to surround oneself with company - almost any company - is a powerful modern addiction.

The great eroder of tranquillity has been the computer. Life may be easier thanks to the new technology, but the old idea that it would be a labour-saving device which would herald a golden age of leisure has turned out to be a joke in poor taste. It is work which has been liberated, and it follows us around wherever we are.

Leisure itself has become more frenetic and competitive. The computerisation of our social life means friendship has been ratcheted up into a numbers game.

Quantity is all: the number of friends or followers you have, whether you are liked or unliked, favourited or unfavourited.

The restless busyness of the internet has infected every aspect of our lives. According to the American psychiatrist, Dr Elias Aboujade, whose new book Virtually You adds to the growing body of evidence pointing to the neurological harm which computers can cause, those who spend a significant time online will develop an alternative personality, which is an extreme, unattractive version of their real selves: more e-abusive, more e-sexually perverse, more e-quarrelsome and e-bullying.

Not only does it unleash our mob instincts, it allows us to remain anonymous. Aboujade argues that this dysfunctional persona soon infects the real world.

One-in-five people now eats their dinners in front of computers, according to yet another depressing survey. Even when we are eating, we have to remain in touch, to be dementedly multi-tasking.

Who could be surprised that people have begun to feel ashamed about staying in, that they lie about what they do over the weekend? Not to be busy is not to be truly alive.

Silence has become the enemy. The act of reading in an atmosphere of quiet is now eccentric, old-fashioned, out of touch with the real world. In the movement of modern life, something quiet, and important is in danger of being drowned out.

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