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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

The loneliness of the long distance consumer

This has not been a good year for me to write my thesis. While my attention span has definitely improved since I was a teenager, and while  I can turn the radio, television, internet, phone and Twitter feed off, there is still too much god-damn stuff going on.

Having dipped into some of the doctoral thesis written by past students (and now available for all via the British Library Ethos project) I am fully aware that while the higher education sector may be feeling a financial squeeze, I am nonetheless living in an exceptionally privileged digital age. Whereas less than a decade ago the same tasks involved hours of manual clerical labour, my computer can now manage, sort and output all my academic references in countless formats. Whenever I discover a reference to an academic paper in someone else’s bibliography, I can usually access it and download a PDF copy to my desktop in seconds. And using proprietary music and word processing software, I’ve been able to transcribe and code about 21 hours of interviews without encountering the delights of a micro-cassette tape recorder or insolent foot pedal control.

But for the PhD candidate in 2011, the flipside of all this technology is that information overload is now a serious threat to one’s productivity. The mental muscle that can make strategic decisions and editorial choices now has to work harder and harder. Because I can now work half as much to access tens of thousands of pages of information that is possibly relevant to my study, it means I have to work twice as hard to decide what I actually need.

At some point in the last decade, I forget when, I recall reading an article that described recent scientific research into children’s dextrous skills. The sudden rise in popularity of mobile phones, and the relative cheapness of Short Messaging Services (SMS) had produced a noticeable evolutionary quirk in young people in developed nations. Their opposable thumbs and fingers were getting stronger. It was posited that this was because having grown up firstly with computer games and then secondly with mobile phones, a new generation of humans was using their thumbs and fingers in an entirely new way, manipulating the miniature buttons on these devices.

A few weeks ago, I was told about a friend’s child, who has just learnt to walk. Having been allowed to play with the family’s iPad, and having learnt to make primitive gestures and ‘drawings’ on the screen, he had subsequently been seen to approach a television and try repeatedly to change the channel by swiping the moving pictures to one side with his hand.

As I consider the passing summer and coming autumn that will be spent writing up my thesis, I have become more and more aware how the information revolution has turned me into a digital consumer. Through seamless and wireless internet connections, my smartphone, laptop computer and tablet all provide continuous access to information that is updated by the second. As riots have exploded across London, for the first time I have television news channels being eclipsed as the up-to-the-minute sources of information. Up-to-the-minute? I’m getting updates up-to-the-second. Prior to returning to the UK, the Prime Minister was widely lampooned on Twitter for receiving “hour by hour reports” on the situation in London. That made all of Twitter better informed than him.

Amongst all the chaff floating around my desk today, one article has stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Zygmunt Bauman writes on Social Europe Journal:

These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.

There is no European nation that has embraced the neoliberal culture of consumerism to a greater degree than the UK. And while politicians have struggled to make vacuous statements about the base criminality of those looting shops and businesses, I am becoming more and more aware of the tipping point over which we teeter. If an entire nation is sold a dream based on consumption, there will inevitably be an underclass that will never be afforded the same social, cultural or financial capital to consume as much as we are told we should do.

Postscript: this is a frustrated work in progress. It may be amended, edited, extended, shorted or deleted after publication. Please comment if you have any thoughts.

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