How did they feel, the 1.8 million protesters, when this week they received a long email in response to their petition from the Prime Minister? They had logged on to the Downing Street website, a new exercise in online consultation with voters. They had registered their online disapproval of road taxes. Finally each and every one of them was contacted, online, by Tony Blair and thanked for their interest.
A few, presumably, will have felt a warm glow of civic pride, a sense that computer technology had brought government closer to the people, but not, I suspect, many. If I were one of the 1.8 million, the idea that all that cybernetic toing and froing had merely allowed Blair to drop a personalised mailshot into my inbox would have enraged me. The protest and its response would have felt like an exercise in futility.
But then cyberprotest is to politics what cyberporn is to real sex. There is the niggling need for self-expression, the moment of urgent communication with a computer screen, all leading to a vague sense of foolishness and anti-climax. Even when the porn star in question sends out a mass email thanking the punters for their interest, it feels, and is, fake. The process has provided the illusion of engagement for those who prefer to sit at their desks and will doubtless become a part of our political lives.
It is becoming increasingly clear that computers are profoundly addictive, extracting a high price for the convenience they offer. This week a management psychologist in America claimed that an obsessive reliance on emails should be treated in the same way as drug or alcohol dependency. Companies are apparently losing millions because their employees are wasting time through obsessive, pointless fannying about online.
There will , inevitably, be a 12-step programme for email addicts. They must, first of all, face up to their problem, then resolve not to check for messages every 10 minutes. They should “commit to keeping their mailbox empty”, and so on. The truth is that it is too late: this addiction is endemic. We are living through a revolution in human connection every bit as profound as that caused by the invention of the telephone, and this time it is happening at a startling rate.
A team at King’s College, London, has studied the use of email, and its linguistically challenged cousin, texting, and has concluded that the effects on individuals of a constant stream of messages include lethargy, an inability to concentrate and rudeness. Skittering across the surface of one problem after another, the brain quickly becomes addled and priorities are confused. A full day of dealing with emails is the equivalent of losing a night’s sleep, it is claimed. The effect on IQ is significantly more harmful than taking cannabis.
None of this can be too great a surprise. For all its time-saving potential, the email is a lethal form of communication, both hot and cold, instant and deliberate. You can taunt, bully, nag and niggle, without having to face your victim. The possibility of effortlessly copying others into a correspondence adds to its capacity for wasting time and stirring up trouble. Without vocal inflections or facial expressions, ghastly misunderstandings can occur.
The attraction of email contact is obvious: it has the potential to provide company, laughter and information without demanding any effort in return. It makes you feel wanted. No one who uses it on a regular basis can avoid the tug of addiction. The need to check for messages every minute or so becomes overpowering. Being without access too the internet begins to feel unnatural. On holiday, if you have managed to leave the laptop or BlackBerry behind, you are likely to be checking where the nearest internet cafe is to be found, like a junkie seeking out a dealer.
The danger of email dependency extends beyond mere brain-fag and obsessiveness. It corrupts the more natural forms of communication. So powerful is the sense of clipped efficiency associated with emails that the old-fashioned telephone call has begun to seem self-indulgent, amateurish; people will apologise for speaking to you on the phone rather than through the grown-up medium of the email.
The email addict is in his or her own virtual universe and a call from outside, from the real world, can often feel intrusive. The e-world is a sanitised place, where there is no room for the human complications of nuance or character, where the inhabitant can decide when to be in or out of contact. It is safer, more private and controlled, than the real thing.
It is no coincidence that the symptoms of email addiction identified by the psychologists at King’s College – tiredness, inability to concentrate, a rapid decline in intelligence – are strikingly similar to those associated by the Victorians to onanism.