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Julia Hobsbawm: Fully connecting to my Jewish heritage

Julia Hobsbawm, the world's first Professor of Networking thinks we spend too much time online. She tells Hilary Freeman about her digital Shabbat.

    Julia Hobsbawm
    Julia Hobsbawm

    It’s not really surprising that Julia Hobsbawm, the world’s first Professor in Networking, insists on an in-person interview, rather than a telephone chat. “It’s important to meet face-to-face in the Facebook world,” she explains. “It’s qualitatively different. You want all of your senses in play together, including your sixth sense, your intuition. For some reason, since we’ve had the internet, we’ve forgotten that instincts are usually pretty strong.”

    So I arrange to meet her at the Jewish Museum in Camden (where she’s just been appointed to the board) to talk about her new book, Fully Connected, Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload, which examines the impact of the internet age on both our personal and professional lives. Hobsbawm believes that we are all drowning in data and deadlines, and that our current ways of working and communicating have led to the equivalent of a health crisis.

    The problem, she says, is that we don’t yet have a blueprint for how to cope with being “fully connected” to machines. We need to redefine our understanding of “social health” — which has changed markedly since the WHO defined health in 1946 — and devise a “fitness plan” to ensure we survive and remain productive.

    “In 150 years, human beings have moved from suddenly being connected to rail roads and sea networks to this moment where we are connected all the time to social media and mobile phones and the Internet. This has put us under immense pressure, both psychological and physical,” she explains. “We don’t control our calendars or our diaries any more, like we control our bodies. But we need to take our connectedness as seriously as we do our health.”

    The idea for the book came about 10 years ago, when she experienced a serious health scare, almost dying from pneumonia and septicaemia. “I knew I needed to make some changes in my lifestyle. I also realised that my falling ill was very linked to being hyper connected — always on, always rushing around. Around 10 million working days are lost to stress every year. Technology is like another species that we’re living cheek-by-jowl with — an animal that can bite you quite hard if you’re not careful.”

     

     

    Her personal answer to the stress of being “always connected” to is to take what she calls “Techno Shabbats” — scheduled times when she disconnects from the internet, puts away her phone, and instead reads or spends time with her family. Her book is littered with Jewish metaphors and references (she writes about shidduchs, for example, and the diaspora), so it’s not surprising to learn that the period she spent writing the book coincided with an awakening of her Jewish identity.

    The daughter of the late Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, Julia did not even know that she was Jewish until the TV series Holocaust was broadcast in 1978, by which time she was 14 years old. “When I was growing up there was absolutely no observance of any kind. My family principally came over from Vienna, before Kristallnacht, and they regarded themselves not as refugees but as émigrés. Being Jewish in those years was polarising; you were either in the community or you weren’t. We weren’t.

    “And yet, when my eldest son (Roman, now 18) was born, there were the stirrings of something, and I felt absolutely compelled to announce his birth in the JC. And when we got married in 2004, we asked Rabbi Julia Neuberger to say the blessing. Then, when Dad died in 2012, despite rather famously not embracing his Jewish identity during his lifetime, it turned out he had one very clear stipulation about his funeral, and that was that Kaddish would be said. It was incredibly moving. And at that defining moment you are Jewish.”

    Julia says that since turning 50, three years ago, her identity as a Jewish woman has become much more important to her. “I’d be lying if I said I have any intention of becoming a properly observant Jew. I don’t know one end of a menorah from the other. But I think a wonderful clarity happens to you as you become middle-aged. The form and pattern of Jewish life, the rhythms and routine of ritual, become more interesting and compelling to me.’’

    For the first time in her life, she has started to go to shul — to the West London Synagogue — on High Holy Days.

    “I thought: ‘If I died tomorrow, they’d say three things about me. They’d say who my father was, they might say what I did for a living and they’d say I was Jewish. I know I’m identified as being Jewish, and I thought it was about time I owned that identity.

    “I feel that the period of time in which I clarified my thinking about the ideas in the book coincided with my realising that it’s OK to feel complicated and be Jewish. You don’t have to be holy, or religious, or hold a particular political view to be in the Jewish community. I’ve realised I can be Jewish as an individual and not conform to anyone else’s stereotype.”

    A prominent entrepreneur, media commentator and international speaker as well as Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, Hobsbawm was awarded an OBE in 2015. She says networking is not just, as people often believe, about going to lots of parties and handing out business cards. It’s about making meaningful connections, about sharing knowledge and about social health and mobility.

    She dedicates her book to her grandmother Lily, “the finest salonnière in St John’s Wood, and before that, Vienna. She used to have these gorgeous gatherings of relatives and friends. I suppose it’s in the blood.”

    But while she acknowledges that Jews are generally good at networking, she cautions against the insularity of the Jewish world. “The Jewish community is well-networked in and of itself, good at talking to itself. But I know from the network science that I’ve studied and written about that a society is much, much healthier if it has wider and more diverse networks.”

     

    ‘Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload’, by Julia Hobsbawm, is published by Bloomsbury

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