I'm so addicted to email, Facebook and Twitter, I have to hide it from my wife . . .
As a new book claims we're under the tyranny of email, James Delingpole owns up to a compulsion that has begun to affect his friendships, family and working life
A friend of mine was driving his family back from their half-term holidays down the country and the journey was taking far longer than it should. Two hours in and Tom's fingers were starting to twitch. After four hours, he'd had enough.
"What are you doing?" said his wife Kate.
"Er just, you know, um checking my emails," said Tom.
"But we're on the motorway, we've got two kids sleeping in the back and YOU'RE DRIVING," Kate screamed.
When Kate told me this story over dinner the other day, I think she expected me to be horrified. But I'm afraid my sympathies were all with Tom. Sure, it's not the safest thing in the world to be fumbling with a BlackBerry while simultaneously trying to steer your family down a motorway at 70 miles an hour. But when the voice in your head is saying "Must check those emails. Muuussst check those emails," what is a guy supposed to do? Ignore it?
What Tom and I are apparently suffering from is the tyranny of email -- which also happens to be the title of a despairing new book by John Freeman. Freeman, the editor of Granta magazine, decided enough was enough when he popped out with a friend for some coffee and came back 45 minutes later to find 72 new messages "marching down the screen like some sort of advancing army".
According to Freeman, the communications technology designed to bring us together is driving us apart.
Where once we used to interact with real people, we now content ourselves with shallow cyber-friendships on Twitter and Facebook, replacing meaningful conversation with terse 140-character messages and glib one-liners calculated to shock, amuse or annoy.
Not only that, but we are doing our heads in. The more often we scroll down our social-networking pages and the more hyperlinks we follow, the less we are able to concentrate.
"Our attention spans have fractured into a thousand tiny fragments," he says.
Freeman is dead right, of course. One reason I know he's right is that since I started writing this piece four hours ago, I have been distracted by 51 emails covering everything from a trip to Denmark and the making of a new will to -- my favourite -- a stranger telling me an article I wrote the other day was "brilliant".
I have also checked my Twitter pages once every hour to see whether anyone has either DMed (direct messaged) or mentioned me. (No, they haven't.) And I have become dangerously immersed in a 42-comment (so far) Facebook thread, which began with a post about a trip to Washington DC and mutated, via a mention of the burning of the White House in 1812, to a slanging match with my token Leftie Facebook chum Rebecca about the merits and demerits of the British Empire.
I didn't need to do any of these things but I couldn't help it. Like Tom, like Freeman -- before his revelation -- I have become an internet addict.
According to Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science, the craving we internet junkies feel is the same one that drives a gambling addict to the slot machine.
"You never know when something is going to land in your in-box, so there's a tingle of excitement every time you check."
Too true. Though I know that 99.9pc of the emails I receive will be spam, dreary admin, or useless press releases, there's always the chance there'll be one that might almost change my life, like the out-of-the-blue message I had from the US last year saying, "You don't know me but I represent one of America's most successful small publishers and I wondered if . . ."
It's the same with Facebook and Twitter. I keep checking them for much the same reason I punctuate my working day with cups of tea and coffee. Partly, they're a form of displacement activity; partly, they give me a series of tiny, self-affirmatory lifts. "Ooh how nice," I can go. "Three more strangers have asked me to be their Facebook friend. And five people have pressed 'Like' on that comment I posted about global warming, which must mean I'm insightful and clever." The technical term for this --auto-Googling being the worst example -- is "egosurfing".
Yet, as Freeman says, it's never quite enough. Instead of making you happier, it can "leave you feeling emptied out, fractured into a million bits and quips, yet somehow obliterated". And instead of feeling loved, you feel oddly friendless, because of all those things that online conversation can never deliver: "touch, the complex emotional valencies of expression and smell, inflection or tone of voice, the awkward but essential jaggedness of being present in the world".
For me, the part of Freeman's book that rings most painfully true is his analysis of how the new technology threatens family relationships.
One father describes how, when having Lego dogfights with his son, he will keep one hand on his toy plane and the other on his BlackBerry, and smash up his son's toy at strategic intervals so as to buy time to check his emails. Change the odd detail and that could be me.
My wife now resents my iPhone so much that I scarcely dare use it in front of her any more, preferring to sneak glances at it in another room on my own, as if my email compulsion was like an addiction to internet porn. In some ways, I think it's worse because it's so much more intrusive.
As the Berkeley sociology Professor Arlie Russell Hochschild puts it: "Your body is there but your mind is not."
But how to escape this spiral of addiction and despair? Freeman provides a helpful list of anti-email tips:
1. Don't send.
2. Don't check it first thing in the morning or late at night.
3. Check it twice a day.
4. Keep a written to-do list and incorporate email into it.
5. Give good email.
6. Read the entire incoming email before replying.
7. Do not debate complex or sensitive matters by email.
8. If you have to work as a group by email, meet your correspondents face to face.
9. Set up your desk to do something else besides email. 1
0. Schedule media-free time every day.
Some of this makes a lot of sense (number six, for example: how many times do we completely miss the point of an email by skip-reading or failing to reach the important bit at the end?); some of it, if you're self-employed like me, is pretty much impossible. I once tried that trick of only inspecting my email twice in a day -- and lost work worth €500.
But there is, says the writer Susan Hill, a sensible middle way. Hill is in an ideal position to advise a poor wretch like me because, although she is something of an internet junkie -- a Facebook regular, with a new blog in the Spectator -- she has also managed to maintain her career as an author of proper, old-fashioned books made of dead trees.
"The problem is not the internet. It's you," she says sternly. "You must never let it control you. You must control it."
Really, she insists, the internet is no different from an updated telephone. Just as in the old days you could either ignore a ringing phone or allow it to go on to the answer machine, so today it's quite possible to put your emails to one side until you're ready for them. "It's a question of discipline."
What she does very much fear for, though, is the future of all those under-18s who have never known anything other than the distraction of texts, emails and tweets.
"At least people like you and I have been trained to concentrate on books," she says. "But the new generation can't even manage a full chapter."