Sep 7, 2012
This is not a tirade against the internet. And when I say ‘break’ I don’t mean that I’ve shut off the wifi, hidden the laptop, thrown the mobile phone into the sea, and started knitting by candlelight in the evenings and building a sailboat in my spare time. Let’s call it a break from engagement: I’ve still been there, I’ve been lurking, hovering, half-heartedly clicking links and saving them to read later and then not reading them, adding items to my eBay watch list and failing to feel regret when I realise I’ve missed the opportunity to bid, scrolling mindlessly through my Twitter feed, smiling automatically at tweets I know are meant to be funny, pausing over ones I know are meant to be thought-provoking. My body knows what it’s meant to do, and so, to a certain extent, does my mind; but my heart’s forgotten.
I’ve been working on a chapter for my book that deals with “DIY” and the value of making stuff. And it’s funny to be someone who makes stuff that’s largely intangible. I spend hours working every day and I have nothing to show for it except text on a screen – text, moreover, that lives in some nebulous place I sometimes see referred to as The Cloud, a non-place really, an imaginary world, a thing I can’t quite wrap my head around. All those drafts and notes and abandoned ideas, which exist but seem not to: invisible output.
Last summer, my first as a freelancer, I remember feeling particularly odd; I floated down the same old streets, to and from the swimming pool, in a state of mild but constant panic. I was powerfully unused to the lack of structure that now characterized my days; I had always been at school or at the office, and now, although in a sense I felt I was always both learning and working, I was not really accountable to anyone but myself. It was almost too much to bear: the intensity of freedom, the terror of uncertainty. What I found online, what found me online, was often the only comfort.
This summer, more accustomed to the aimlessness of my days, I developed an irreverent attitude towards what I had once held sacred. I went to California for a few weeks and forgot to respond to emails for days at a time, sometimes. I stopped reading my newsfeed altogether – every once in awhile I would log into Google Reader, click “mark all as read,” and feel unjustifiably satisfied. I sent an actual postcard to a friend back in England, an act I found disproportionately pleasing. I wondered if I might have been wrong all along, if a more disconnected life would actually suit me far better than the one that I had made for myself.
So yes: I’m tempted to suggest that we should just chuck everything out and start over: build a fire, roast a squirrel killed with a handmade bow and a handmade arrow, sing songs around the campfire. I mean metaphorically, of course. I mean I’m tempted to say, well, I’m going to go back to just reading books now. I had my fun – and oh what fun it was! But I’m going to stick my head in the sand now, because it’s all getting a bit difficult. I’m going to go back to just reading books and maybe I’ll get a job as a waitress or a bike messenger, because I quite like a bit of physical work sometimes, especially when it’s rewarded with cash. And I’ll go to the pub more often, because I’ll have the money to do so, and I’ll talk to people; I’ll read the newspaper, get ink on my fingertips, ideas in my head. I’ll sort the garden out, once and for all – I really mean it this time, this time I really mean it. I’ll be a brighter, fuller, more present human being, whatever any of that means.
But what a cowardly idea that is – and a vain one. Do I really think that my disconcertion has anything to do with anybody but myself? – that somehow building things, or ignoring things, or whatever you want to call it, is going to change the fact that I feel a little out of sorts and I’m not able necessarily to concentrate all the time on what it is I’m trying to accomplish? Do I flatter myself so much that I believe that the pure I, free at last from all the distractions imposed on me by the Internet-beast, is so unfettered and unstoppable?
In the end this kind of yearning for a more rustic existence – what Nathan Jurgenson has dubbed “the IRL fetish” – strikes me as a childish impulse, like closing your eyes and thinking, if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. If I ignore the world, it will shrink, become manageable again.
“Our immense self-satisfaction in disconnection is new,” writes Jurgenson. “How proud of ourselves we are for fighting against the long reach of mobile and social technologies! One of our new hobbies is patting ourselves on the back by demonstrating how much we don’t go on Facebook. People boast about not having a profile. We have started to congratulate ourselves for keeping our phones in our pockets and fetishizing the offline as something more real to be nostalgic for.”
Meanwhile, a recent Telegraph article describes the plight of “a growing group of novelists who struggle with internet-addiction”, including Zadie Smith, who thanks the internet-blocking applications Freedom and SelfControl (“for creating the time”) in the acknowledgments for her latest novel. “If someone with as highly creative, original and robust a brain as Zadie Smith needs these tools, what hope is there for a 15 year-old?” concludes the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield.
What is it about this article that bothers me? It’s not all bad, after all; author Carl Wilkinson also quotes Greenfield being somewhat more insightful:
“The worst thing for human beings,” says Greenfield, “is not getting attention. Studies have shown that the worst thing about low-paid jobs – beyond the low pay – is the lack of attention. We all like being acknowledged. Emails and messages reinforce that you’re worth contacting.”
But I think what gets me is the lack of culpability (and, perhaps, imagination: if writing fiction is, as Will Self indicates, “about expressing certain kinds of verities that are only found through observation and introspection”, why is “the internet […] of no relevance at all to the business of writing fiction directly”? Why is observation and introspection online automatically assumed to be impossible?). Why does everyone act so helpless when faced with, basically, their own selves? (I think of a 1999 piece in the Guardian that I recently encountered, in which David Bowie extols the virtues of the internet and its potential as a powerful marketplace for artists. “Interaction on the Web is a little like a mirror, like communicating with a manifestation of yourself. Because it is so chaotic, so decentralised, I find that using the Web becomes like communicating with a hardware version of me. Its not exactly a doppelgänger, but an alternative version of myself,” he says.)
Why can’t we at least acknowledge that, with or without the internet, we still have to work hard, fight distraction, fight depression, and succumb, every once in awhile, to paralysing self-doubt? So it was nice, while I was on holiday, not to have any mobile phone reception. It’s also nice to be able to video chat with my 86-year-old grandmother in California. Disconnected, connected, whatever: I’m still fallible.