Up Front 03/15

Despite the extraordinary benefits it has brought and the eye-popping wealth it has created, there can’t be many people over fifty who haven’t wondered about the effect of the internet on people’s ability to communicate and interact without a smart screen. In this month’s ‘Laterally Speaking’, Humphrey Walwyn mentions watching a family sit silently through breakfast at a hotel. Each member of the group remained glued to their smart phones without once speaking to each other. He described them as being ‘physically joined at the wrist with their techno companions.’ It’s not a rare sight anymore and there has been no shortage of magazine, newspaper and (of course) online comment on the loss of verbal interaction. In fact, advice on how to overcome internet and smart phone addiction has been around for years. Last month the University of Twente in The Netherlands, an organisation that specialises in social and behavioural sciences as well as engineering, launched an app to help people overcome alcohol addiction. They call it ‘Online brainwashing with a positive aim’. The hope is to change the associations alcoholics have with alcohol. During training, participants are shown photographs of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. By swiping, the participants can then push the photographs away from themselves or bring them closer. They are allowed to bring the photographs of the non-alcoholic drinks closer, but as soon as an alcoholic drink appears, the participants are ordered to swipe the photograph away. They then see the photograph disappearing into the distance. In other words, they are rejecting the alcohol. Apparently, through repeated training, the app changes the response and thought patterns in the brain. Until of course the next level of technological advance allows us to conjure up 3D images from our smart devices. Imagine arriving for breakfast and asking for a table for twice the amount of people in the family, so that each person can create a companion to talk to and interact with. We could recognise those with the same interests as us by simply glancing around the room. More cornflakes Batman?