“I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society both good and bad is unimaginable. I think we’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”
– David Bowie, 1999
Before we even start, I know there’s a certain irony in writing a column about trying to live a less-online life. I am online right now, typing into my banged-up, five-year-old laptop: the same one I stare into day after day, trying to write another book. The same screen, that in combination with my phone, has had more of my eyes lately than much else. I say lately, but I mean, for too long. The exact unit of time would most likely be terrifying to look at.
I write books, and this screen is where the books happen: this is my excuse. It’s also where long numbing spirals down through the internet happen. There are few moments of splendour there, to be honest. There are less laughs than there used to be.
I’m not looking to live without the internet. Just, I’m trying to be not as absolutely online as I used to be. Offline is an aspiration at this point, a thing I can’t touch yet. There’s no use in aiming for purity in any aspect of life, let alone digital purity.
In figuring out my thesis statement for this column, I wanted to figure out a way to write about living adjacent to the internet, instead of on-line. With the internet, not within it. How quickly and easily it has almost become a part of my body – how I barely noticed that my hand wants the hard rectangle of phone more than it has ever wanted a smoke, or a drink. I am hoping that in writing this column every week, in reflection of something I did that didn’t involve my hands on a keyboard or thumbing through my phone – I’m going to figure out how to change my relationship to the internet.
It’s always been a kind of a love-affair, the internet and me. The first 30-minute nightly dial-up sessions when I was a young teenager felt like tipping something infinite, even if they were just the forums I visited and later moderated under the quaint handle ‘Wispa’ and later, ‘WispaGold’. There were reams of terrible fanfiction by anonymous authors copy and pasted from Geocities websites and into Word documents where I inhaled them with my eyes, then deleted them, fearing anyone else ever finding them. This was before other people I knew in reality used the internet. How was I going to explain what Neopets was to my friends on my street? That I was knee deep in drama on an Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats forum? I was twelve. Absolutely this was my realm, and my realm alone.
How quickly and easily it has almost become a part of my body – how I barely noticed that my hand wants the hard rectangle of phone more than it has ever wanted a smoke, or a drink.
So, this love comes from before Myspace, before Bebo, before we told the internet who we really were (though I’m not convinced any of us ever tells the internet who we really are). It was an infinite hall of secret identities. A place where I felt cool – though I was obviously not cool then, and am absolutely not cool now. It’s easier to seem like something interesting online and I knew that from a very, very young age. My life online started out as a drip-feed of something sweet, but now, nearly 20 years on, my bloodstream is bumped with sugar. I have always felt like I was coursing the edge of marvel with the internet: all that information, right there – but now I worry that staring too hard at it has changed me. Made me lonelier, for one – and I’m predisposed to loneliness. Too captivated by the horror of news. It has made me angry, and alienated – and at worse, paralysed by the stasis of the scroll.
I recognise that none of these statements about Being Online are new: that every so often a statistic gets dropped about our happiness, our health, and what strange ways our sociability is warped by the internet. We all feel weird about being online, it impacts all of us differently. I’m starting to think of it more and more like a poisoned chalice: all this limitless information, this space for expression, this potential for utopia: and it hurts us, or we go there to be more hurt, or to hurt other people, or to witness hurt and internalise it somehow. I frankly don’t think we have the metabolism for it.
Let’s be realistic, here. Dril, the finest prose stylist of the internet age once said, “I will never log off,” and I felt that. I used a Nokia 3210 for a month in 2018 and relapsed into my iPhone because I couldn’t navigate London without Google Maps and thumbing text messages into a buttoned phone made me want to scream the house down. With the kind of job I have – writing books – I can’t afford the luxury of logging off. A part of me needs to be there, but the query here is, just how much? How can I focus on the offline moments, more?
This column isn’t going to be prescriptive, but reflective: I’m not out here trying to tell you how to live your life. I don’t have any advice, frankly. I’m 31, and at a point where I have far, far more questions than answers. I’m also at a point where I’m pretty sure the answers to those questions aren’t on the internet. I think they’re outside, they’re in the bottom of a mixing bowl, they’re in libraries, and books, and music. They’re in shouted conversations in pubs, or whispered ones, in beds. So, here at thegloss.ie, on Friday nights, I’m going to look at one offline thing in close detail. One good thing.
I have promised myself that I’m going to write this column by hand before I type it – this is the way I write fiction, too. In notebooks, with pens (or pencils, if I’m in a library that requests inkless study) – with my hands. Maybe with music, more often just listening to the thrum of people around me, or the hush of my house, the deep purr of my cat. I am not going to disconnect the wires of my life just yet. But here, every week, I’m going to figure out how to make sure they’re not controlling my every move. Before I plug them all out for good, I have to untangle them, first. Put my hands into dough, into the ocean, into the offline.
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