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Sun Jul 31 02:34:27 CAT 2016

The Big Read: Turn off, tune out, drop in

Tom Eaton | 06 January, 2016 00:39
DIFFERENT GEAR: Getting here was tricky. Call it the turbulence of going cold turkey
Image by: MOHAMMED SABER/EPA

Dear One, I'm so sorry about vanishing like that just before Christmas, but I couldn't stand the traffic and the wailing toddlers snotting on sweating Santas.

I had to get away. I hope you'll forgive me for not forwarding an address for postcards and the like. The thing is, I've deliberately come to a place where news travels very slowly, if at all. You know how I'm always droning on about how there's too much news and too much stupid? Well, I decided to go to a place where there's none.

In the end I didn't need a visa or even any money. All I needed was a decision: to switch off the babble for a few weeks. So I did.

I haven't looked at Facebook or Twitter or news websites for two weeks.

Two weeks! Do you realise what that means, Dear One? How much rancour I've avoided? How much prose-farting I've dodged? I feel that these two weeks have added two years to my life. What a glorious place this is!

You'd love it here. At first glance it looks a bit like South Africa, but the longer you stay here, the more you see the differences. The main one is that here, people just get on with things. Those who talk, talk to each other. If they fight, they work it out afterwards, like adults. Nobody drops an imaginary microphone and prances out of a non-existent room. And Dear One, the most wonderful difference: in this country, people who lecture other people are actual lecturers rather than flakes who think that an audience is a substitute for years of therapy. Lord but it's good to be free of the aggressive self-pity of the Internet Republic!

I won't lie, though: getting here was tricky. Call it the turbulence of going cold turkey.

I can admit to you that I was properly hooked, and I knew it. But like a true addict I was deluding myself about the nature of my addiction. I told myself that my need for news was virtuous; that the urge to check my phone was a desire to stay informed, and that each tweet or headline was contributing to a godlike view of the world, which, by implication, would ultimately lead to a godlike righteousness and wisdom.

You've felt it, too. I know you have: that subtle but relentless pressure to have an opinion about everything, to engage earnestly with everything, and, once the virtue commissars have named the target for the day, to rain down rhetorical fire upon it.

Yes, Dear One, I told myself that I was hooked by a desire to be informed so that I could use my knowledge for good. But it wasn't that. After all, if I was after knowledge I would have spent my days reading books by experts rather than poring over the nervous tics of nobodies.

No. The truth is, I was hooked on the jolts, the small but relentless bursts of anxiety that happened every single time I opened Twitter or Facebook or any local news site. I was plugged into an endless stream of second-hand disasters and third-rate manifestos. And every time one of them flared onto the screen, presented as the outrage du jour, it lit me up with a dim, smoky spark.

I know the brain doctors have figured out how this all works and their findings are depressing: it turns out that we're all just lab rats pressing our noses against a red button marked MORE PLEASE. But I also think I was mistaking anxiety for a feeling of engagement. I was confusing chaos with connectedness.

Dear One, you know that I can be overly dramatic, but this holiday has made me begin to think that the internet is very, very bad for me, and I don't only mean bad as in distracting and confusing. I mean that I suspect it's bad for my physical and mental health.

Yes, I know the internet democratised knowledge (or at least porn and kittens) and helped the Arab Spring bring democracy to - oh, wait, never mind that second one. Anyway, it's hailed as a good thing. But so were cigarettes, once. Doctors said so. And I'm now convinced that we're in the "smoking is good for you" phase of the internet.

In fact I'm sure that, 50 years from now, medical people will shake their heads and murmur: "Can you believe the toxic filth those poor rubes deliberately pumped into their eyeballs every single day?"

And they'll be doubly grateful that China banned the internet once it bought the last independent country back in 2045.

I'm sure I'll see you soon. Writers can't stay off the internet forever. But, Dear One, when I come back, it will be carefully. Very carefully.

Yours in being much more cautious and much more content, T.

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