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The Impact of Synthetic Lives in a Synthetic World

When did this all start? When the bottle of ink was replaced by cartridges? Perhaps when we rapidly ‘progressed’ to disposable biros? Was it when fruit, with their own natural coating, had a plasticised layer shrink-wrapped around its skin?

Was it when natural abrasive powders such as bicarbonate or charcoal were swapped out for plastic microbeads or when our water supply became so toxic with chlorine, prescription meds, pesticides and heavy metals that we had to resort to bottled spring water?

It’s hard to pinpoint when our lives lurched from relative harmony with our surroundings to unequivocal disharmony. Mankind throughout the ages has taken all new developments to the limits, often without giving a thought to the repercussions.

A simpler time.

Our children cannot remember a time before the Internet, or when there were only three channels on the television. They grew up in a world of synthesised and sanitised experiences, a simulation of what life ought to be. Staged photographs to garner more likes and follows from computer bots and fake accounts. Why bother learning how to balance on a real bicycle or feel the pain of scraped knees, when you can have unlimited chances to teach an avatar on the Playstation how to navigate off road?

What’s the point of travelling to exotic locales and experience the tastes and sounds and smells of another culture, when you can ‘follow’ a social media influencer and pay by Patreon for someone else to have fun on your behalf?

We are leading our entire lives by proxy and it is damaging not just to our wellbeing but also the environment. We perpetuate the illusion that our time is too precious to waste on experiences, when you could be increasing your sixty-hour working week to eighty.

When will we realise that the best antidote to the stress that this plastic existence causes us, is to return to the slower pace and appreciative lives of our grandparents - those same people who endured wartime rationing, evacuation and a world wrenched apart by grief? They valued life over wealth and were humbled in the process.

We don’t need to evoke another disaster or major conflict to achieve those aims. We simply have to realise that no one is put on this planet for another person’s convenience. Time is precious to every single one of us. Pushing to the front of a queue is not just bad manners, it assumes that your time is more valuable than everyone else’s. The same applies to being late for a meeting.

Our lives are so busy that few of us take the time to buy local seasonal groceries and cook nutritious meals. Instead we buy fast food wrapped in plastic from intensive farming practices and packed by those on minimum wage.

We forego the traditional family meal around a dinner table. Those rituals may seem archaic and redundant, until you realise the value in sitting down together without mobile devices to distract the conversation reinforcing a meaningful relationship with your children. Time to listen to their problems and fears and remind them that you are the primary care giver, not the TV or iPad.

A few years ago, I received five behaviour reports in one week for a student in my tutor group at the school where I worked. This lad had an exemplary record up to then. When I took him aside to find out the cause of the sudden change, he stood and cried. My heart almost broke for him as he went on to tell me that he missed his parents, who spent all their days out of the house working on their careers. He told me that he’d tried to inform them how lonely he felt but they didn’t have time to talk. My advice to him was to send them an email stating precisely what he’d told me, and that if they didn’t respond, I would intervene on his behalf. It seemed that they had time for emails, but not their child. He was fourteen years old. They assumed that he’d grown too old for their attention.

He was not alone. It was lucky that we got to the bottom of the issue before things got out of hand, but that was only because he trusted me. Other kids suffer alone and in silence. Neglect is not just poor diets, hygiene or lack of clothes. Being ignored is just as detrimental to wellbeing and emotional resilience as being hungry. In too many cases, those silent sufferers can turn to more dangerous cries for help.

Slow it all down.

We need to embrace the regression to slower and more efficient lives. It makes no sense at all to expect our children to continue with this reckless descent into a stress-filled, drug stabilised existence with no consideration for its long-term effects on health.

I recently taught my niece how to crochet. She sat for three hours in a tranquil state, learning the stitches and practising them with ambiguous success. When it was time for her to leave, she asked if she could take the hook and wool with her as it was the first time she had relaxed and forgotten what was happening online via her smartphone.

I’m not saying that we should demonise the internet, nor limit everyone’s use, but our young are missing out on real world experiences and bombarding overloaded senses with inessential noise. Yes, we can and do adapt to the barrage, and yes, we all have the choice to switch off, but how many are able to do that? Offline is now the peculiar societal state where once it was reversed.

Being in constant communication with work colleagues has seen working hours expand exponentially into social activities and precious home time. As much as we may wish to switch off, we fear that we could lose out on workplace kudos or an opportunity for advancement. Each time we allow this encroachment, we tell ourselves that it won’t happen again, until the next occasion when you have to miss a school recital or kids judo club in favour of another pointless meeting on email etiquette.

Bad habits…

We all need to alter our bad habits if we are to continue to survive on this planet without the toxic motherlode of inorganic chemicals entering our food chains and destroying us too. The tabloids would have us believe that this is an insoluble crisis. It isn’t. I remember buying fruit and veg in pounds and ounces from my local market, each of the products separated by unbleached paper bags and carried home in my shopping basket. The paper bags were folded and put into a drawer for reuse. My parents still do this, every single week.

Instead of applying noxious chemicals to their chopping boards and worktops, they use a white vinegar solution and have separate boards for different uses. In place of hand gel pumps and bottles cluttering up the recycling bin, they have organic milk or glycerine soap bars. Small changes that our fast lives can easily accommodate, but if done on a national scale has an enormous impact that benefits the environment and in turn, ourselves. There are so many excellent and cheap alternatives to using plastics, yet people are reluctant to swap. The boon days of a disposable world are over.

We should not be encouraging the next generation to enter working life with the expectation that having a work-life balance is detrimental to career progression. Instead, we should all be working on changing the managerial mindset. Overworked, stressed and unhappy workers equal poor productivity, resentment and a toxic working environment.

This is neither new nor rocket science. There are plenty of media reports focusing on highly successful companies adhering to a four-day working week, or extreme flexibility in office hours, from New Zealand to Norway without losing productivity. Instead of judgement over those of us who take time to relax with our technology switched off, embrace the practice as being just as important as a good night’s sleep.

Reality will always beat simulations

There is nothing in this world like real life experience. Virtual reality maybe a close approximation of it, but it cannot give you the atmosphere of a carnival or the smells of spices in a bazaar, the rush of diving into an exotic ocean. If we continue to allow technology to force its way into our working and social lives, we should be given the choice over the extent of control it has over us.

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