The blurb for Tom Chatfield’s How to Thrive in the Digital Age suggests a book with something substantial to say. Suitably impressed, I decided to read all 149 pages in search of digital enlightenment.
The author claims to have examined
what our ‘wired’ life is really doing to our minds, for better and for worse and, based on “innovative and practical research”, wants to teach us
how to prosper in a digital century – without losing our humanity. A sort of digital Debord, perhaps? Colour me intrigued.
But even allowing for the tongue-in-cheek “how to” schtick of the title, the pocket-sized proportions and the cute graphic design, such claims seem far-fetched. At this stage in the “digital century” it’d be surprising if any book, no matter how physically imposing or seriously titled, could deliver on such fantastic promises. It shouldn’t surprise you too much, then, to learn that this one doesn’t either.
In fact, even if we further allow for a bit of knowing hyperbole and good old fashioned bullshit, based on the author’s credentials (faculty at the Saïd Business School, former consultant to Google) and the academic register of the book’s prose, we might still expect to be presented with at least a few engaging new ideas. Perhaps even the odd tentative conclusion.
As it is, the book offers little more than a survey of well known facts and largely prosaic observations on digital media: people are now almost constantly connected, there’s a real economy built in virtual worlds, a mind-boggling amounts of data are uploaded every few minutes, etc. Nothing revelatory for anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject.
In fairness, I suppose this clash of cute irreverence and serious academic inquiry might be the result of discord between the author’s aims and a publisher’s desire for saleability. How to Thrive in the Digital Age is just one of a series of slender, attractively presented books from the wryly monikered School of Life, tackling such grand subjects as How To Stay Sane and How To Change The World.
But since the cute irreverence doesn’t extend to actual content, I can’t help feeling all this cuteness is merely a get-out clause. And this annoys me. In fact, quite a lot about the School of Life’s offer of neatly packaged philosophy and self-actualisation troubles me, even though I have a lot of respect for its founder, Alain de Botton. But I digress.
For anyone unacquainted with the basic issues concerning the Internet, social media, digital economies and so on, this book may be a good start. Some might find the academic tone off-putting, but it’s brief, the author knows his subject, and he writes fairly clearly.
Anyone who can name more than 3 social networks and knows something of the social and economic issues of the digital world, on the other hand, is unlikely to find anything new. They’ll almost certainly be frustrated by the lack of conclusions or any discernible point. They might also wonder where the “innovative and practical research” is.