Juliet Dunlop: Nudging towards a switch-off
You are almost there. Almost at the end. So close, in fact, you could reach out and touch it. The dramatic finale you have been building towards, the hilarious punchline you have been saving, it is all there, ready for the taking: “And so I said…”
Suddenly, you are cut off, halted mid-sentence, stopped in your tracks, left hanging. The story you started five short minutes ago (or five long minutes ago, depending on your skill as a raconteur) has been unceremoniously interrupted.
A mobile phone is ringing: ringing and vibrating; ringing, vibrating and flashing. It is a crying baby, pleading to be picked up and soothed with gentle words and attention.
“Sorry, do you mind if I just take this?” It’s all part of modern life you inwardly sigh, and then whip out your own phone to check for texts and emails, Twitter updates and Facebook notifications.
Such interruptions used to send us into a lather of indignation, now we simply pick-up where we left off, albeit a little piqued. It seems we have come to terms with our place in the communications pecking order. Conversation used to rule; now the mobile calls the shots. Someone, somewhere, probably sent you a text to that effect.
The smartphone is now the third person in any relationship; the uninvited dinner guest and our constant companion. We are joined at the hip, uneasy if it is silent and bereft when we are without it.
But how many anecdotes and heart-felt conversations have we missed because of it? How many stories finished abruptly and without end? And how many people have we annoyed or even upset, by taking that call?
Perhaps it is time to take a stand – to disconnect from our super-connected lives and simply switch the mobile off. That’s right. Off.
It might even make us happy. An expert in such matters – in this case a former stalwart of the Nudge Unit (no, I hadn’t heard of it either) – believes it may be the way forward.
The UK Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team, to give it its proper title, is all about suggesting ways people can make small changes to improve their lives. And switching off your mobile is the latest idea to float out of their small, Whitehall bunker.
It must be like working in a sweet factory, coming up with all those ideas to make us happy – except the Nudge Unit doesn’t work for Willy Wonka, and some of their sugar-coated suggestions are quite easy to swallow.
Professional nudger, Professor Paul Dolan, believes silence may be the key to contentment. He argues smartphones come at a price. They steal our attention and jeopardise our relationships. Staying connected has made us less connected.
“Turning your phone off and enjoying being with your friends is much better for you than constantly checking your phone and checking your emails,” according to the professor.
And small changes may be the way to do it. Nudge Unit scholars believe subtly altering the environment in which we use our phones would be the most effective way of preventing distractions.
The example given by Professor Dolan is an American restaurant game called “Don’t be a d*** at dinner”. It involves people putting their mobile phones in the middle of the table and the first one to use it has to pay for everyone else’s meal. Crude but effective.
So, are we ready to be nudged in the right direction? Towards calm conversation and away from unfinished sentences? Is it time to take out a new contract – with ourselves? We already know life is too noisy, too busy, too crowded. So how about some peace and quiet?
You could always start with this week’s unlikely hit CD, The Sound of Silence. It’s not the first silent album, but this recording, made in a Sussex church, sounds rather good. It captures the atmosphere of the 12th century St Peter’s, with its squeaking pews, distant voices and faraway footsteps.
There is no ringing or beeping; no sudden interruptions. Just silence. Only problem? It’s sold out. So if you want to buy a copy, you better give them your number. They can always reach you on the mobile.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 18 June 2013
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