Technology is trying to kill us
The new technological age that was supposed to bring us freedom by allowing us greater flexibility is, slowly working to destroy us. It is as if we have made a pact with the devil. We’ll work at home but we’ll do so until 1.30am. We can leave the office at 7 pm on a Friday – although we’re too tired for a movie – but it means we’ll be looking at and responding to emails on Sunday. Once at home, we are often too tired for guests or for dinner out (restaurants now mean seeing people texting and tapping Smartphones, a nauseating sight when you are trying to have a rare work-free supper yourself). When we do climb the stairs to bed, our heads fuzzy with wine and bad Friday-night television, we have trouble sleeping. Sex is off the agenda, because, yes, we’re too tired for that, too. We’re all run ragged by what social commentators refer to as ‘the breakneck pace of life’, or the 24/7 society that never sleeps.
Recently, a survey commissioned by a big UK found that 42 percent of the 5,000 people asked said that lack of sleep was their biggest health concern, followed by 34 percent worrying about low-level, general fatigue. More than a quarter said they were stressed and another quarter admitted to depression. It was concluded that working long hours combined with not seeing enough of friends and family is about to threaten our health. These statistics confirmed those produced less than three weeks earlier by the UK’s Chartered Management Institute, whose ‘Quality of Working Life‘ report showed that more than half of us experience feelings of constant tiredness at work and even more of us suffer from insomnia.
Peter, a 32-year-old professor at a major SA University, concurs, blaming the way we live in a globalised society, linked by electronic media: ‘Email robs you of all those moments when you are supposed to be in repose – glancing at the paper, having a quick fag with somebody. Everything translates to screen time now and that has a major debilitating effect. And like many other people, I have a network point at home. I’m checking my inbox all the time, when I should be resting, and I get this feeling of isolation from it.’
There can be no doubt of the positive changes that have taken place in the last 50 years. Life in Western countries is much better than it was during the early part of the last century – we eat better, we are richer, we are healthier, there are more opportunities – but then, as Dr Nick Read, author of Sick and Tired, asks: ‘Why, in the midst of so much excitement and opportunity, has life satisfaction declined so much? Why is depression the commonest illness in the Western world? And why, when most infectious diseases have been conquered and rates of heart attacks and strokes have been reduced, do so many people report that they are feeling ill?’
In his book The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler writes that human civilisation has gone through three major cataclysmic shifts – we’re currently in the change from an industrial culture to a globalised one – and that each wave has been associated with some kind of ill health. The stress and exhaustion doctors are seeing in patients now, it is argued, are the same as those in middle-class England in the late 18th century. They just have different names.
Read argues that ‘functional illnesses’ such as constant tiredness, the inability to sleep, anxiety that makes you ill, are caused by the body’s failure to adapt to social change. We travel to the other side of the world in a day, we communicate within seconds. Modern technology informs us, educates us, but it means that we are constantly threatened by global catastrophe, climate change and terrorist attack.
Often it takes the body packing up entirely to force a change. The link between exhaustion and ME is proven. Sufferers of ME usually point to exhaustion from pressures, such us moving house, moving jobs, having babies, which is then tipped over the edge by them getting a virus. Suddenly, they find they have ME. The discussion about what causes ME is so highly charged that Dr Simon Wessely, who runs the chronic-fatigue research unit at Kings College Hospital in the UK, has decided to stop talking about it in public: ‘I am sickened by the politics of it,’ he sighs. ‘It raises vitriol and passion.’ All he will say is that ‘excessive activity and pressures are risk factors’. The message seems to be that feeling exhausted won’t necessarily lead to ME, but it weakens the system making it more susceptible.
Exhaustion can often mask another kind of status anxiety: greed, or a kind of acquisitiveness propelled by envy. Dr Read sees it in his patients. People who work round the clock for the big house, the big car, the ‘big’ life but have very few core values. ‘What you are seeing is well-educated, intelligent people losing the ability to make choices about their lives,They get exhausted and they think they have no choice, they think they cannot stop, but if you really examine the question, you’ll find that they have a socking mortgage on a really big house, they educate three children privately, they go on foreign holidays. It’s all about status. They’ve lost touch with the ability to analyse their lives. Why do people moan, “Oh God, I’m going to Morocco, I’m exhausted, I can’t face the journey”? Why don’t they just stay at home in the house they’ve no doubt spent a fortune doing up and read a book in the garden? We have seen so much of the good times, of benefiting from the success of capitalism. I think exhaustion masks fear: fear of not keeping up, fear of war, fear of terrorism which horrifies us but which makes us hooked to it through news reports. People have to realise that they do have a choice to change some parts of their life, at least.”