Dealing with digital urgency

Life Honestly

Why is everything so urgent? And what’s it doing to our brains? 

Picture: Getty Images 

Anyone with access to the internet is encouraged to live in a frantic whirl of information. But we must remember to ignore the urgency every now and then, says Lynn Enright

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By Lynn Enright on

The email was urgent. I knew because it said so in the subject line. And when I opened it there was more evidence of its urgency, with the email-writer employing phrases like “ASAP” and “imminently”, explaining how it was linked to a news story that was developing live, a situation people could monitor in real time using Twitter and the 24-hour news channels.

I took great pleasure in deleting the email immediately because it was one I received last week, when I was away on holiday, and as the sender would have received an out-of-office response explaining who to email instead, I was confident that the urgent missive had been dealt with. What struck me though, was that the urgency didn’t seem so urgent. A week on, a situation that had then warranted capital-letters URGENCY felt almost trivial.

I work online, and in online media, there is a lot of urgency around: there is a greedy internet to fill with content; there are other media outlets to best and beat; there are ideas, tidbits, pictures and rumours, on Twitter and in inboxes and WhatsApp groups, and they might be urgent, you’ve got to check. I live with a constant thrum of urgency: it sits in my stomach and it flutters in my chest. But it’s not just me. It’s not just my work. All of us – or all of us who use the internet – are now encouraged to respond to the world with urgency, with panic and with a sense that we are just about to miss out on something crucial.

I live with a constant thrum of urgency: it sits in my stomach and it flutters in my chest. But it’s not just me. It’s not just my work

The BBC sees fit to wake tens of thousands of us in the night with a news alert about the death of an nonagenarian pornographer. At 4am, our phones ping with the information that Hugh Hefner has passed away at home at the Playboy mansion. On social media, bleary-eyed people set out to beat each other in a race of breaking the news. By noon, there are essays considering Hefner’s impact on the sexual revolution. By 2pm, everyone on the internet is arguing… Or agreeing with each other, urgently. A man who made a living by objectifying women died old, nothing urgent about it, but instead of allowing time and space for the facts to turn to reflections, there is an eight-hour pile-up of frantic opinions and rushed takes.

In this constant whirl of urgent news, we become experts on our lunch breaks and commutes, reading in-depth analysis on our phones, our brains whirring with information before they switch off, exhausted, and eventually we declare “2017 is just the worst”. Because, really, there is only so much urgency we can take before, overloaded with facts and opinions and information, we become anxious and fall back on platitudes. The constant urgency means that, despite our dedication to the news, we miss stories, too. When a celebrity pregnancy announcement is treated with the same urgency as an unfolding humanitarian crisis, it’s hard to prioritise.  

In our downtime, the urgency doesn’t abate. Holiday photos are uploaded not after the event but as they occur. We are encouraged to check out Instagram Stories constantly – because those images are going to disappear within 24 hours so quick! Look! Now! If the websites and the apps can convince us that the information they impart is transient and soon to be replaced, they can keep us coming back and checking in.

Because of my job, because of my temperament, because it’s 2017 and 2017 is just the worst, haven’t you heard, I must live with a sense of urgency. It’s there, on my shoulder. And so I must find ways to exist alongside it.

A day off work allays the urgency; clearing an email inbox does, too. A walk in the cold air, with nowhere to go in particular, can help. And reading a good book – that works, as well. It took someone a year, at least, to write a novel. Some of those sentences may have taken whole days to craft. They might have been left in drawers or in laptops for months and months, not urgent but patient. I find the chopping of vegetables and the assembling of meals helps. To make the dicing of the carrots any more urgent would result in an injury and you can’t rush the process of baking or roasting or braising.

And when it all seems frantic, you’ve got to ask yourself: will it still be urgent next week? If you think the caps lock URGENT will look foolish in seven days, perhaps it’s not really so urgent, after all all.    


Picture: Getty Images 
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Lynn Enright
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