Joe Tibbetts is the publisher and managing editor of i-D Information Daily; Public Service Digital and Council News Monitor. He anchors Reality Bites - The Local Government Talk Show podcast; & AnswerTime the Boilerhouse webTV panel show; chairs conferences, and advises organisations on how to get heard in the public sector.@Joe_Tibbetts
Julia Hobsbawm’s - Fully Connected. Surviving and thriving in an age of overload - has much to say that is provoking and ultimately useful to those charged with digital policy making and/or the delivery of local public services.
In fact there is nothing new or visionary about the world that Hobsbawm introduces. “Welcome” she says early on “to the fully connected Era” Elsewhere she remembers recognising a truth about her own life which must chime with every reader of this review:
The “new normal” for workers like me, those in the “knowledge worker” business , service sector companies, start-ups and office based jobs – where the lights may go off in the office but work is carried home and continued there – was to be “always on”
Nor are we surprised at the Hobsbawm diagnosis of our modern malaise. Through digital excess we are threatening our own physical, mental and spiritual health. Those three “healths”, physical, mental and spiritual, Hobsbawn has bundled together into a construct she calls Social Health.
We have used technology, she says, to build a full-on, hyper-fast, 24 hour, noisy, demanding, society which is inundating us in a torrent of stress and so ruining our Social Health. We are sharing our every moment with a dangerous beast, digital technology and all that it delivers.
Hobsbawm knows that none of this is new and acknowledges that her readers already know much of what she has to say. “Find me anyone”, she writes, “working in an office, a school, a call centre, a warehouse, a parliamentary chamber, a public state front line service*…..who doesn’t struggle with overload, who doesn’t admit that much of daily life isn’t working well.”
The book is, at 195 pages, blissfully short. And it is an easy read packed, as it is, with entertaining and illuminating anecdotes. So far so predictable and no cause, you might think, for the sort of blanket recommendation with which I started this review.
Almost exactly a year ago in May 2016 I did a video interview with Geoff Connell and asked him about his goals for his year as president of Socitm. He listed a handful of initiatives and then began to talk about the immediate future for those in public sector IT.
Things were changing for this cohort he said. If they wanted their true value to be understood and acknowledged, if they wanted a future at all, they could no longer spend their days obsessing about specifying new software or wishing they could beat their legacy systems into shape with a lump-hammer.
Now that the thing which they had raised from a pup and which was once a bolt-on had itself become the thing onto which everything is bolted, they must step up and take responsibility for customer service, for customer satisfaction, for customer understanding and customer buy-in to the new social contract.
Attempting to define what Social Health is and does Julia Hobsbawm comes up with:
Social health means balancing face-to-face and electronic connections…. Those with Social Health know who and what to connect with, as well as the value of different forms of disconnection as a way of staying healthy…..and (it) applies equally to both individuals and organisations.
So here is the rub. To Geoff Connell’s list of new professional responsibilities for public sector digital leaders we can add one more. They must become doctors, specialists in Social Health. And from time to time, in answer to the question what now should we do with digital technology they must be prepared to pause and say “Turn it down or turn it off for a while”.
“Is there a way to navigate through the Age of Overload?” Hobsbawm asks. She hopes that her book will provide the reader with context and ideas to help with that navigation. At the end of the book she provides Six principal practices of Social Health. But after all she has said and done there is a lot of thinking still to do. Hobsbawm would be the first to acknowledge this and her book is a pretty good starting point.
At lunch time on Monday 24th April, as I finished writing this review, I stood in the kitchen drinking coffee and listening to Rachel Johnson talking to AL Kennedy on Radio 4 about the process of writing. Johnson confessed that in order to get any writing done at all, she had a piece of software into which she fed some settings and it turned off her ability to connect to the internet for a chosen amount of time.
Today I spoke about this to a friend. She told me in tones of genuine excitement about a box you can buy, with a time lock on it, in which you can lock away your smart phone.
Hobsbawn, I imagine, would approve Johnson and the software, the time lock box, and even my choosing to listen to the radio rather than letting my lunchtime coffee get cold, as I all to often do, while sitting in front of my screen. The toys are taking over the playroom and it may be time to put them back in their box.
* Our italics