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There is such a thing as (café) society

Social interaction is vital – that’s the message of Julia Hobsbawm’s new book

25 April, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

Julia Hobsbawm, the world’s first Professor of Networking, believes coffee bars are vital for human social contact

IN a world in which we find ourselves drowning in internet data and deadlines, hate imploding social media and newfangled gadgets, Hampstead Village’s Coffee Cup seems light years away.

But that’s where I’ve arranged to meet Julia Hobsbawm, the world’s first Professor of Networking, daughter of the late Marxist historian Professor Eric Hobsbawm.

It is an appropriate setting too as her compelling, erudite new book, Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload, is focused on the vital need for human social contact in places like coffee bars and the vital local community.

It is a focus backed by a burning passionate optimism that social care and co-operation can solve anything while not ignoring today’s mounting international concerns.

“It is a very uneasy time,” says Julia. “It would be wrong to say I don’t have a frisson of anxiety and that we all need to get our act together, even if we can’t affect the political corridors of power.

“The anxiety is caused when everybody has access to information continuously, true or false, and everybody feels they have a say, have a voice about what is happening beyond social media and the ballot box.

“Normally liberal-minded people are very frustrated and angry in what is a dangerous world, angry about inequality or the inefficiency of institutions and organisations to deal with problems. But I’m a natural optimist.”

Very much the Hampstead model of social and political initiatives, Julia grew up from the age of six in Nassington Road. She was a pupil at Gospel Oak School, then Camden School for Girls, at first living as a TV researcher, then in publicity and political fund-raising after leaving the then Central London Polytechnic without any qualifications.

Now, at 52, she lives in the Whitehall Park slice of Archway with her publisher husband and family of five, including two step-children.

She enjoys a highly successful career with her own company, Editorial Intelligence, and is engaged as a visiting university professor and as a speaker at world events.

She believes the World Health Organisation and similar economic institutions need to play a role in creating what she calls a social care society, which she explains in a cavalcade of case studies in her book.

“We need to take a more holistic and more pragmatic attitude and create a more joined-up world. My book is not so much about political well-being but understanding the connected world, which is not as healthy as we think it is.”

She touches my hands and adds: “We have to hold on to the fact that what you and I are doing now is the most wonderful form of existence, which is to be together, one to one, raking over all our interests and concerns in a café.

“We sort of squander that at our peril. It doesn’t make people happier or better or safer if they do everything electronically. And that goes for multi-national companies too.”
Julia insists that rumours of the demise of the human race are exaggerated, laziness creeping in while the techno-evangelists promote their products as the only way to live in the future.

“I use pen and paper still, don’t you?” she demands. “I have my pen on me at all times.”

How does her world detox come about?

“The elephant in the room is the lack of leadership,” she says, at the same time praising the leadership of Theresa May and offering sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn after he was twice elected by an overwhelming majority of party members but now faces continual scorn.

“Everybody wants to become a leader but I think it is good management that is required,” she adds. “For me it is not grandiose power policies that matter at this moment when the world is unravelling.

“Will my book help? I don’t know. It has been in my head for 10 years and I care deeply about the issues.

“The story of the network world, if it is explained and understood better – and oh God, we also need some new thinking – we can make it. I certainly hope so.”

Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload. By Julia Hobsbawm, Bloomsbury, £20.

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