Freezing All News Intake During A Pandemic

Monday October 19th was a day like no other. Similar you could say, but uniquely different. As the morning news filtered onto the interfaces lighting up the screens and dinging the notifications, the nation roused itself to smell the coffee.

Covid vaccines were forecast for the end of the year. Trump’s health was improving. Michael Gove had declared the door to the Brexit trade deal ‘ajar’, and Britney had set pulses racing with a sexy dance on instagram in a red halter top.

In the shower around 7.19am, I made the decision to stop watching listening or clicking on any news for a month. The Stoic deprivation thing was part of it. But it was more that I was going mad. My life had become a metronomic clickfest of newsfeed incontinence relieved by snatches of sleeping and eating.

BBC News Guardian FT BBC Sport ESPN Grazia YouTube BBC News Guardian FT Heat BBC Spo… Refresh consume excrete refresh consume excrete.

It was another thing too. The day before, I’d gone online and noticed every one of the two dozen articles on the homepage I was blinking at was about something terrible. Death, crime, poverty, scandal, corruption, racism, climate catastrophe, deadly virus.

Hand an extraterrestrial the morning paper and it’d be like these cats have fucked this place up good I’m out. It was the grimness of the headlines more than anything that made me stop to wonder if this relentless checking and informing and updating was doing my mood any favours at all.

In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker writes how contrary to what the media would have us believe, progress throughout the world in the last 150 years has been close to miraculous. Deaths in war have plummeted, extreme poverty has halved in three decades, the world has seen a mass decrease in starvation, domestic violence and child abuse are down, life expectancy is way up, there is 90% global literacy rate in under 25’s, and the world is a safer place.

But journalism tends to cover what goes wrong rather than what goes right, what happens rather than what doesn’t. Bad things, Pinker points out, are sudden and dramatic and occur on an idle Tuesday in May. An attack, a riot, a bomb blast. Good things are things that don’t happen, such as children not starving, terrorism not taking place, nations not being at war.

Knowing full well that humans are evolutionarily tilted towards negative information, the mainstream media goes fishing. So in ignorance of all the good in the world, we read of Sarin gas attacks and police brutality, spiralling infection rates and Kim Kardashian’s butt-reduction, now brought to us in real-time by a new army of video journalists, basically anyone with a smartphone.

I stepped out of the shower, somewhat purified, and got busy. I deleted the news apps on my tablet and set up some site blockers on my computer. Not owning a smartphone meant time in the street was free from temptation.

Leaving the flat that morning I felt the lightness that comes with the instinct of being kind to oneself. Outside all was as it had been. The traffic lurched and gargled, the last leaves trembled, the lollypop man on the crossing by the school smiled.

My first encounters were positive. Friends nodded in understanding, said they’d thought of doing the same, the lady at the checkout gave a look of earnest commiseration. It’s all the same so dreary day after day yer doin a good thing.

But mid-morning at my desk when the site-blockers barred my way I was taken aback. What the hell was I supposed to do, how was I going to know things. The infection-rate. Had London gone into Tier 3. Was Donald on the mend. Keeping up to speed could be deemed more critical now, than say, on Jubilee Weekend.

What if I emerged from my flat 28 days later and the streets were empty, the shops boarded up, just a harsh wind beneath a birdless sky, and the world was unrecognisbale. What if we were top of the league with two games in hand.

I began to sniff out clues for signs of the pandemic, the sirens in the air, the number of masks, the degree of crestfallen countenances. I glimpsed a news board one night cycling through central with the words Isis in Vienna written large on it. In the back of a taxi I heard something muffled about Macron addressing his people. From the bowels of my laptop a video emerged of a concerned-looking Boris behind his wooden lectern and I closed it down immeditely.

I perfected an appropriate level of concern facial expression, a grin and bear it brow-furrow, and a shrug of humorous resignation, hoping that would cover all the bases. So if I got chatting to a stranger they wouldn’t clock I had absolutely no fucking idea what they were on about.

The churning news cycle was a conversation I had been left out of and I felt dumber for it. But also calmer, like I was the guardian of my own secret, of the things going on around me. Instead of drawing in on myself, I felt pushed outward. Like a great gulp of mountain air.

I noticed time more, there were now pauses between things. I could break from a task without going all bbcsporguardiayoutubeholebleughh, I would sit there, stare in the fridge, do some jigsaw. My brain began to refocus, my attention span spread its wings.

Outside there were sounds, strange shifts in air currents, winter’s creep, the harsh brick of St John’s against my hand. I found allies in the things headlines meant nothing to, the building cat, the enormous planes of London fields, the wide-eyes staring out from prams. I began to feel a little as they were always, present in my surroundings.

On the off-chance I might leave the house one day and get tased and airlifted to a bunker by the World Police, I told my mother to text if Boris and his stooges went full-Wuhan. I forgot about the US election entirely. I was on a roll. What else could I give up that required being on my own in the flat with decent wifi.

Two and a half weeks in, the country went into nationwide lockdown. The same day the election results came in. I’d gone down to Devon with a friend, a US politics obsessive. As he relayed the headlines from his smartphone in real-time, I heard an exotic language that needed careful enunciating back to me. Jow-Bye-Dun you say. But a short sharp hit of news was thrilling. I felt part of the crew again.

Was it unethical, was it my duty to keep informed. If news and politics were part of the culture I lived in and I wasn’t engaging in that culture, was I abusing the freedom I took for granted to live in a democracy. What about the men and women affected by job losses and insufficient furloughs, was my no-news experiment mocking them. 

When every government decision had a direct impact on mortgage payments, covering rent and buying food, was taking time off from the headlines nothing more than proof of privilege. Or would the world spin on regardless, whether I kept up to date or not.

With all the fun happening the other side of some forcefield, I began to relish my separation. It wasn’t that I’d found something new, more that I’d got back something I’d lost. I was a 90s kid with a pre-internet brain and I was unlearning habits that were so normalised I’d stopped noticing how unbelievably weird they were. 

It turned out that this compulsion that had swallowed up two hours of my day, easy, I didn’t miss at all. The moments that filled me up I still had access to, an autumn walk, a book’s depth, a talk with a friend. I literally felt cleaner, and understood what the word detox implied. The removal of some poison.

With only the world in front of my face for company, I decided to write my own headlines. I smiled at everyone like a moron, even through a mask, held-up supermarket checkouts with platitudes, sprained my elbow holding doors open, fist-bumped the lollypop man, left a tin of biscuits for the dry-cleaner, engaged in pretty much every tiny human interaction I could, and saw goodness come my way.

Eventually it came around.

Twenty seven days in, on the eve of my reinitiation, I felt twitchy. Had Trump died. Were Tottenham top of the league. Was the pandemic now a scamdemic, was everything still a mess. I deactivated the site blockers and began to click and refresh and click some more, and somehow nothing had changed at all.

A new president, the pandemic still there or thereabouts, Spurs second on goal difference. But nothing much had happened. Not really. Just ever-changing details in an unrelenting cycle destined to endlessly repeat itself. 

I’d been here before. I found myself very aware of how this was merely the latest iteration of a sequence which would change tomorrow and the day after and if I checked now or next week it wouldn’t change the core of me. I didn’t have to know. I had stepped off the edge of something.

Straight away the headlines brought a sinking feeling, and I picked up a book, ashamed of my denial, dimly aware it would be impossible to keep ignoring the news, and wary of the slow-spiral that would inevitably lead me back to where I’d started, a lump of media-gorged non-attention.

Sitting with my feet up one night watching The Fellowship Of The Ring, an answer came. Exhausted and emotional, Frodo looks into the foreboding dark of Moria and sighs. I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. Turning, Gandalf fixes his eyes kindly on the little hobbit and murmurs. So do all who live to see such times. 

But that is not for us to decide.

The news cycle was the stark evidence of a suffering world. 2020 was a year like no other. I wish none of this had happened. So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. The news was going to keep happening whether I read about it or not. Pretending it didn’t exist wasn’t the answer, and relentlessly checking it wasn’t either. 

There was another news cycle going on all around me that the media couldn’t report on, tiny miracles beyond the pixelated glare bouncing off my retina that required my attention. The myriad pockets of time in my day, the little windows of pause. How would I spend them, what would I make of them. How would I remember them. All I had to decide was what to do with the time that was given to me.

Instagram And The Masks We Wear

Piano music plays softly as a man in underwear walks through an immaculate apartment. His environment drips clean lines and control. His body is expertly developed, Mediterranean brown and muscle bound, but tastefully.

He lists off his skin routine.

Deep-pore cleanser lotion. Water-activated gel cleanser. Honey almond body scrub. Exfoliating gel scrub. A herb-mint facial mask. Aftershave lotion with little or no alcohol. Moisturiser, anti-ageing eye balm, final moisturising protective lotion.

I believe in taking care of myself, with a balanced diet and a rigorous exercise routine. In the morning if my face is a little puffy, I’ll put on an ice pack while doing my stomach crunches. I can do a thousand now.

A few decades later in an alternate reality, ambient house music plays as a man in underwear walks through an immaculate apartment dripping clean lines and control. His body is expertly developed. A voice oozes over the top of the video.

I do today what people aren’t willing to do, so I can do tomorrow what they can’t. I take a cold shower instead of coffee, it wakes me up instantly and is good for my skin.

He likes to starts his day off with a win, rising at 5am to outwork his competition.

I hate running and I hate morning work-outs. I do both.

Building one brand is nearly impossible so having five is insane, he admits. To aid his concentration, he chooses from two expensive wrist watches. His laptop is cased in Italian leather. His apartment looks like a boutique hotel, he drives a super car.

The first man is a serial axe murderer with borderline personality disorder, the second is a self-proclaimed CEO of five companies who just turned 24. One of them is a fictional character, one is not. This is their morning routine.

As I sat there staring at my laptop screen watching Jose Zuniga exercise, shower and dress in slow-motion it became apparent the spirit of Patrick Bateman in 2020 was alive and well.

By the time Jose had sat down for lunch and cracked a can of zero calorie tangerine & strawberry San Pellegrino to begin working his way through a chicken caesar salad while explaining how eating clean is something he lives by because as he always likes to say, health is wealth, I began to feel physically ill.


I figured my revulsion was down to how ridiculous it all was, how staged and bland, the sociopathic narcissism of Jose’s routine. The slow-motion, the six-pack, the steam rising up from the cold shower. But looking harder I realised it was something deeper, something in me.

Jose and I were the same person.

Staring into those deep brown eyes concealed behind designer sunglasses, I saw me staring back. As he sat there at lunch outworking his competition, planning his next ‘win’, Jose was the embodiment of every time I’d been in complete control of my life. What made me feel sick was the acrid reminder of how totally empty it felt to feel that good. To be that in control.

I don’t have a six-pack or drive a super car, or have 1.3m instagram followers but my life at times has felt like a never breaking wave moving gently along a silvery shore. Times when I was on a roll and my shirt felt crisp on my skin and things were full of possibility, and I’d go into an expensive deli and sit down to eat a fresh salad and sip sparkling mineral water. And the clean lines of the deli and the crunch of the raddichio would mirror my inner peace.

And I would hate myself.

The veneer of wellbeing would float away and just below the surface I would hear the gurgle of fear and self-loathing rise up inside. Like that level of wellbeing could only make me feel dirty. And this happened without fail. As if I could never warm to my life when it was trying to convince me how well it was doing.

Being alive is a bit crap.

It’s not wrist watches and super cars and light bouncing off your abdominals. It’s a string of disappointments and regrets that come packaged together in a cloud of doom as you lie in bed at night thinking back over each wrong turn.


Most mornings I wake up wondering how I’m going to mess up or who I’ll disappoint or what thing will expose me as a fraud while I wade through a quagmire of shrunken socks and empty promises. I don’t really trust anyone who won’t admit their life is a disaster.


Nobody wants to hear how you made slow intense love to a supermodel. Keep telling people how well your life is going and they will stop relating to you. I don’t trust Jose because in my own small way I’ve been there. I cracked the San Pelli, I tasted the raddichio.


You could have a mirror in your office which says look at yourself that’s your competition but there’s still someone out there with more followers and better abs and you’ll stain your chinos and lock yourself on the shitter and some old dude with a red backpack will ruin your engagement photo.

The Taoists believed the right place to walk was the line between order and chaos. Too much of one was detrimental to a balanced life. The way they saw it chaos needed ordering and order required some messing up, but to be on one side of the divide was bad news.


I’d say my life is mainly chaos with a light sprinkling of low-calorie order. But I feel something when I’m a mess, when I’m battling with the world and my emotions. Like I’m contending with what it is to be alive, rolling my boulder up a hillside, bearing the weight of my cross. I don’t feel that when I dupe myself or whoever else into believing my life is fantastic. All I feel is smug. And then empty.


Watching Jose go about his day was a lightbulb moment. The closer I was to that type of control the more squalid I felt. The feeling of clean living, the wash of ice cold sparkling mineral water down my throat, all of it was looking outside myself. And that isn’t where salvation lies, ask Andy Dufresne.

Maybe this is less about living right and more about the masks we wear.

Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth, wrote Oscar Wilde.

But look at Instagram. I don’t see an ocean of truth on there, I feel like the truth lives on the one side of the screen that nobody sees. Odds on the person whose life looks most together is compensating for something. Turns out Jose’s apartment was a hotel lobby after all, and he’d rented his super car for the morning. We should fear the masquerade but the masked might be the most afraid of all.

Give a man too many herb-mint facial masks and watch what happens.

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping mine and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable…

I am simply not there.

A Smartphoneless Existence In 2020

The last email I ever read on a phone was from Papa John’s Pizza in July 2011.

It was the middle of a long hot summer and as I gazed into the sad space between me and my loneliness a beep from my Blackberry Bold 9700 pierced the haze of the afternoon and warned me of a 2 for 1 deal I shouldn’t miss. Soon after I lost the phone and downgraded to a Nokia. That last call for pepperoni proved to be the last breath of my relationship with the internet in my pocket.

In the intervening eight years since Papa John’s came knocking I’ve hopped from rubbish phone to rubbish phone, and in the same timespan technology has become so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic. My Nokia 301 can do very little other than take calls and get texts, and the day I tried to download WhatsApp it froze and threatened to ignite.

These are the phones immortalised by the Matrix, that gave 90s teens their first taste of freedom from behind bedroom doors, the burners used by dealers to keep the police off their tail, and the reason Snake became the best mobile game of all time. These are the phones I’ve carried in my pocket for the last decade.

And I ask myself why.

And it’s confusing because I can’t give a straight answer.

Why, when modern life is increasingly run on them did I refuse to get a smartphone. Going against the grain had something to do with it, I suppose following trends did the opposite of what I desired, which was to be noticed. But there was one thing that bugged me. The lack of thought that went into the idea that the most recent thing must be the best. As if everyone was running blindly after what they stood to gain, and paying no attention to what they might lose.

For me, there are dangers in things being too good.

When I was a child MTV was too good, I would sit for hours flicking through music channels like a maniac until my parents banned me from tv. YouTube became too good, last month the Guardian published my account of a daily battle with a spiralling YouTube habit. If I ever go on a smartphone, the level of sorcery I feel like I’m wielding puts fear into me. So my technophobia has another root. Maybe I was policing myself all along, fearing the smartphone-shaped prison cell I might one day wake up in.

But there was something else. An emotion that would build up inside me when I spent too long on a phone, something tugging at my insides when I looked for too long at a screen. Too much cortisol, the opposite of peace. I hated it, and because I hated it I wanted to turn my back on it.

So for better or worse I spent the last eight years navigating my way through the modern world with a hunk of plastic that, dropped into a pint, would affect my life in no way whatsoever. The small print of which I’ve become so accustomed to it’s only when I write it down that it strikes me as strange.

*

I haven’t checked an email in the street since 2011. Or in fact anything apart from a text. I’ve never been on a WhatsApp group. I’ve never been on a Tinder date. I can’t use emojis. I can’t order an Uber. I can’t listen to Spotify. I can’t use Instagram. I have an iPod shuffle, a camera, a Barclays pin-sentry, and an unnecessarily heavy backpack. If I can’t memorise where I’m going I take an A to Z with me. I text friends to google things for me and the nicer ones reply. I still call 118 118.

If I’m really screwed I can do this, but any info at all is the work of five minutes.

*

Four years ago in a restaurant, my parents began to frown.

It was the vision of a couple sitting opposite one another making no conversation at all, bent-double over their phones. What are they doing, asked my mother. I thought about how to reply. The thing is, I said… these things now mean you’re in fifteen conversations with fifteen different people, all at the same time, none of whom are in the room, all of whom need your attention. When do they ever get to be still, she asked. And we looked around, and half the tables in the room appeared to be under the same spell.

*

Much of this is about freedom.

Because a Nokia 301 really removes some options. I have no world in my pocket. No newsreel of other lives at the touch of a button. The only world I have is the world in front of my face. I can’t share an experience with anyone except who I’m with. I can’t get fomo because I have no idea what I’m missing out on. If I haven’t seen someone for four months I have no idea what they’ve been up to. My phone just isn’t very interesting. All I have is the living breathing world in front of my face.

And there is a deeper unconscious effect.

Because I have nothing to distract me from emotional pain I am forced to sit in my emotions and grapple with them. To bear the brunt of the pain and meet it full in the face and try to understand my worries, rather than suffer the anxieties they create. And in the end, perhaps this has obliged me to get to know myself better. Few people can have described this better than Louis C K talking about why he’ll never buy his kids a phone.

A year and a half ago I walked into a pub on a cold December night and saw a girl across the room waiting tables. I peered deeply inside myself and summoning up the courage, I walked over to her and asked for her number. I’d been single for a long time, I had no leads whatsoever, I was running out of options. And she was… well. I don’t think I would have met my girlfriend if I’d had a smartphone. I would have been too distracted by the world inside my pocket to notice her.

The real things, the truly important eternal things, don’t exist in pixels. They exist in front of our faces. The real world of real happiness and real pain and smells and laughter and the spaces in between, where the beautiful depths of life reside.

But in search of them we huddle around our devices, warming ourselves by their glow, bent-double, plastic-wrapped, alone and in company, on trains, heads bowed, stepping into oncoming traffic, present in a different distant moment making plans for lives that are passing us by, missing the present like a train that always leaves too early. The things that don’t mean to hurt us we will use to injure ourselves. Not understanding the extent of our self-harm. Not asking ourselves a question perhaps we need to.

How much is gained. How much is lost.

A YouTube Addict Brings His All-Time Top Thirteen

I have, in the past, got deep and melancholic about how a YouTube addiction took years off my life, ones I would never get back. But to say those hours of hard graft were in vain is to miss the mark. Old wisdom suggests what we most need to find will be found where we least want to look. And during those long hours of staring at a screen vainly searching for some elusive thing, what that was I’m still not sure – perhaps an escape from myself – I came across many magic beans strewn here and there along the path.

I feel like I’ve learnt as much about the human condition from watching YouTube as anything else I’ve done. All of life is there. And when viewed in moderation it is a gift that keeps on giving. So in no particular order and with no particular theme, here are some of my all-time favourite YouTube videos.

*

I THOUGHT YOU COULD DO A KICKFLIP


This one is short but so sweet. Some guy displays a range of mild anger-management symptoms skateboarding in his driveway. That split-second of rage you glimpse once he screws it up for the second time is golden. I’m always left thinking what else he got up to that morning.

THE PROPER WAY TO END YOUR FILM


I would have paid an insensitive amount of money to be watching this in the cinema as the credits rolled. Although perhaps this never made it to cinema. A mate pointed out they couldn’t even afford the budget for a spring mechanism on his arm device, so he has to manually slide it down. And it’s a flare gun.

EXTREME JAPANESE AUDIOPHILES


As an insight into different cultures and curious psychologies, this is up there. I mean there are weirdos everywhere, but this strikes me as an especially Japanese thing to do. Passion about anything whatsoever is about the coolest thing I can think of.

WOAH…. WHAT?


How was that party the other night. 

An ad for a campaign against sexual violence.

DA FUGGIZ DAT


News reporter has a run-in with a bug, handles it like a pro.

I DON’T NEED TO BELIEVE


Jung asked about his thoughts on God.

KATE METAL MOMENTS


There are two sisters called Kate and Audrey who live in Nagasaki in Japan and they’re nuts about heavy metal. The older one Audrey is a next level guitar player. And the younger one Kate is a total force of nature and i’m obsessed with her.

WEATHER BOY


A news reporter investigating fireworks gets his ass handed to him.

JUST EXTRAORDINARY


A DJ of severely questionable music readies himself for the drop in a pre-rehearsed sequence that must’ve taken five lifetimes to dream up, and then all hell breaks loose in more ways than one. I think this is my favourite clip ever.

KICK HIS ASK


This one is up there too. A little girl telling her mum about monsters coming out of the tv and her plans to defend herself. Watch her mind whirr as she tries to figure out why her mother is laughing. Monsters are a serious business. This girl is too much.

ELETROCUTED SQUIRREL GETS CPR BY KIND MAN


I put this one in because I referenced it in the serious YouTube post. This was the kind of thing I would watch when I was at my lowest ebb. The thing that made me feel even worse was that I was actually moved by it. At least I felt something I suppose.

YEARS AGO…


Last but not least, Alabama rapper Marshall Pope goes off the top and strays into murky waters.

The Dark And Lonely World of YouTube Addiction

The wild elephants turn back to salute the men who have saved their baby elephant from the ditch. They raise their trunks aloft with wondrous grace in a moment between man and beast. I don’t blink, hardly twitch. Lit by the glow of the laptop screen, my face shows no flicker of emotion. The video finishes and the next one begins to load. Electrocuted squirrel gets CPR by kind man. Unbeknown to me, the daylight has faded across to the other side of the earth and I am in darkness. I am lying on my bed in the fetal position, as I have been for three hours straight…

… watching YouTube.

I don’t know how long me and YouTube has been a problem.

The first chapters of all addictions are written in the pen of innocence. Mine started in the same way all others must, with a joy unforeseen. A music video with a new friend behind the sofa at some party one unending night of summer. An email in my inbox linking a highlight reel of Messi’s greatest dribbles, coming in off the right wing, scything through tackles like water.

If I’m scrupulous I admit it started long before that, pre-internet. My parents didn’t let us watch much television. My answer to this depravation it seems, whenever they were away, was to flick through the channels like a drone, hoping of landing on something which gripped my attention for any longer than the spilt second it took for me to glean, ignore, and plough onwards. Alone, I never watched anything for longer than two minutes.

Years later I saw this interview with the writer David Foster Wallace, and it hit me deep.

Wallace fought a depression for most of his adult life that he succumbed to in 2008, aged 46. He suffered with different types of addictions, but said his primary addiction, as unsexy as it sounded, was to television. He was so afraid of watching it he couldn’t have a tv in his house. Hearing this for the first time opened my mind to the idea that the YouTube thing, as it moved silently along the forest floor of my impulses like a fox on his feet of silk, demanded a seriousness I was unwilling to give it.

Every addiction balances on the fulcrum of denial. The decline before the fall was coloured by a lake of awareness. I was unaware the habits I was slowly slipping into weren’t okay. At first it was just weekends. I was single and lived alone, if I woke up hungover it would be easy for me to turn my back on anything productive or social. One weekend I became fascinated by the internal politicking of the WTA tennis tour. Another weekend it was American High School track and field. A man in Pennsylvania fashioned knives out of rusted wrenches. I was in.

There were times when I wouldn’t communicate with anyone all day. It was isolationist, and repetitive, and hypnotic, I would sit entranced, swelling my command of thoroughly useless information as YouTube gently weaved its spell on me, drawing me down deeper and deeper into its pixelated underworld. As one video finished another one on a similar topic loaded, suckering me in for another five or ten minutes. Half hours became hours became half-days. And outside my window the world whizzed on.

*

A lot of people don’t know how to watch YouTube.

I wouldn’t know what to look for, my friend Milly once told me. Talking dog’s unique bark helps him get adopted is good, I thought. I shrugged and said nothing. A system of recommendations based on previously viewed videos appear as if by magic at the top of your screen, which means the table is always laid. If you’ve been watching videos on the Anunnaki and ancient alien space-travelling civilizations, it’s going to show you more of where you last left off when you next click on. Even when I wiped my recommendations, the subjects my dark side needed feeding on were etched already in my memory.

All that was left was to type them into the search bar.

To be addicted is to be completely at the whim of your impulses. Tick. To realise you are no longer in control of your decisions. Tick. To be aware that the behaviours you are undergoing are harmful to you, tick, are making you unhappy, tick, and in spite of this to repeat them nonetheless. Tick. I was losing control over my ability to not watch youtube, and in doing so I was losing days of my life I wasn’t going to get back. But still somehow I didn’t pay it the seriousness it deserved.

I did take a knife to my internet connection three times.


*

In 2007, back when I was at art school we were given a brief to go and do some Guerilla Marketing. To take something about the world we were upset about and use the urban landscape around us to be disruptive in. The idea was to give people a message we think they needed. I stayed up til 2am cutting out a set of stencils with a Stanley knife, I loaded up my backpack with spray paints and cycled through the darkness of the Witching Hour to go and leave my mark. The next day I went back as a sleep-deprived passer-by to watch people interact with it.


*

From just weekends, my YouTube habit morphed into week nights and then during the day. Work deadlines were affected. Spending a lot of time alone in front of my computer, the slightest sniff of procrastination would send me spiralling into the depths and I’d emerge an hour later, all the wiser, constipated by information I didn’t need to know.

Eating disorders are supposed to be so difficult because mealtimes mean the lion is let out of the cage three times a day. When most of our time is spent looking at screens, internet addiction means the lion never has a cage to begin with. It comes down to willpower and impulse control. Both of which are low on my list of virtues. Not having a smartphone or on any social media granted me a certain type of freedom, but it also meant all my wrath and self-loathing was concentrated into one place. Alone and in front of my laptop, I would make up for lost time.

I was acting out, YouYube was my drug of choice.


*

We’re going have to develop some real machinery inside our guts to turn off pure unalloyed pleasure. Because the technology is just going to get better and better, and it’s going to get easier and easier, and more convenient and more pleasurable to sit alone, with images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that’s fine in low doses. But if it’s the basic main-staple of our diet, and I say this in a very meaningful way, we’re going to die.

David Foster Wallace


*

The strangest thing about the YouTube thing is this.

When I was acting out, I couldn’t watch anything that i enjoyed. I couldn’t sit down and watch an hour long documentary about wine-making or the Pyramids of Giza. That was the truly pathological nature of it. I had to watch short clips, back to back to back to back, about absolutely nothing. 95% of everything I watched in the grips of my youtube habit didn’t improve my life in any way. It was the American History X moment over and over again. Has anything you have done, made your life better.

This is all quite funny. The ridiculousness of it all, it’s laughable. But maybe I laugh to keep from crying. Because if you take away the politics of the WTA and fashioning knives from wrenches and elephants raising their trunks aloft to thank the men for saving their baby elephant from a ditch, what you’re left with is somebody alone in their flat, in the dark, willing unhappiness on themselves. In ignorance of the life going on outside their window they are walling themselves up against, in defiance of the light from the phone on the table beside them that is ringing and they won’t answer.

Some poisons go to work more slowly than others. They hide in plain sight all around us, masquerading as tools to make our lives more accessible, more comfortable and more immediate. One day we wake up and they’ve wormed their way inside our minds, ossifying our imaginations, crowding our every moment. And before we know it without them we can’t breathe.

I’ve got this, we tell ourselves, but they’ve got us.

Wallace described the moment when we finally find ourselves alone, and the dread that comes with that, that comes to us when we have to be quiet. When you walk into public spaces these days, there is always music playing. It seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet anymore, he said. And this is happening now more than ever, when the purpose of our lives is immediate gratification and getting things for ourselves, we are moving moving moving, all the time moving.

At the same time there is another part of us that is the opposite. That is hungry for silence and quiet, and thinking very hard about the same thing for maybe half an hour or more, rather than just thirty seconds. Of standing and looking at the branches of a tree, or listening to the birds singing. And this part of us doesn’t get fed.

And what happens is this thing makes itself felt in our bodies, as a kind of dread, deep inside us. Every year it becomes more and more difficult to ask people to read a book, or to listen to a complex piece of music that takes work to understand. Because now in computer and internet culture everything is so fast. And the faster things go, the more we feed that part of ourselves that needs something immediate, that needs instant stimulation, and we don’t feed the part of ourselves that needs quiet.

The part of us that can live in quiet.


*

Brick Lane, 2007

How To Join Instagram From A Laptop

In an especially moving scene in Gladiator, a soulful Maximus looks into the middle-distance as his gravelly baritone reverberates over the fields of barley, and he utters the immortal words…

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

This doesn’t happen, but it’s a good segway. At the weekend, I managed to join instagram using nothing but a laptop and a nokia last seen in shops around 1984. I achieved this in less than a day.

BIG DEAL.

Comes the chorus from the hypnotic glowing interfaces. Instagram has been around for almost a decade, get with the program. Well, as it turns out, instagram is a smartphone only application. 

You don’t see this fellow tapping away on his laptop do you. 

His laptop has instead blurred into the background behind a succulent as he signs into instagram from a smartphone, ignoring the strawberry shortcake parfait to his right to keep the crumbs well away from his Okayama denim shirt.

But being the proud owner of this bad boy meant instagram was an option that had remained closed to me.

GET A SMARTPHONE YOU FOOL.

But I didn’t want to. My reticence came in the form of a quiet voice whispering to me, one that hated being the hostage of the next email or a notification or intrusion that kept me locked in an intensive relationship with my phone. I thought having a nokia with all its limitations would afford me a certain type of freedom.

The chance to gaze at the autumn’s falling leaves, without the option of making said private moment public and enhancing it with a poignant #hashtag. Only to miss the rest of the autumnal scene I was witnessing because I was checking my phone to see who had liked the photo of the autumnal scene I was in the middle of that I was missing.

WHY JOIN INSTAGRAM AT ALL THEN BRO.

Is a good question.

Something about seeing what all the fuss is about, being aware of what I was missing, keeping my enemies closer. Probably because I’d read about the mini-endorphin hit one is meant to get from being on the receiving end of an instagram ‘like’. And how I could do with a few of those, maybe even get a follower or two, while being careful to not make it the sole currency or source of my validation, because that would be weird.

SPIT IT OUT THEN MATE.

Of course.


*

First came the research part.

Was this even possible? Apparently so.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

I looked at some video tutorials to get started, but their ambient soundtrack made me want to roll a phat one and float downstream, which would get me nowhere. So I closed YouTube and went read-only.

1. To kick things off, I had to download a program onto my phone called Bluestacks.

2. Then I had to download a mac friendly ‘Instagram’ application onto my desktop.

3. I then had to run the instagram app through Bluestacks, making sure it was setup properly, but being careful not to absent-mindedly simply run it through my mac because it would pick up on the fact that it wasn’t a phone, thus making instagram unusable because it is a smartphone-only application.

4. Basically Bluestacks was fooling my computer into thinking it was a smartphone.

5. Then came the first big hurdle. Blustacks didn’t want to connect to the internet.

6. There was a way around this.

7. What i had to do was download something called ES File Explorer.

8. Which took quite a long time.

9. This then allowed me to get onto a rather pixelated faux ‘smartphone screen’ from my desktop.

10. From where I could log into instagram.

11. Hammer-time.

12. If I then wanted to upload photos of my daily life – since I gather this is what instagram is for – to update people you don’t speak to about your life, well-constructed selfies, brunches you’re about to enjoy, photos of your children, holidays you’re on with friends, making sure to render the photos as desirable as possible to leave the people you don’t speak to in no doubt that you are on top of things and that your life is great, so when you see these people, they know exactly what you’ve been up to and you don’t have to waste time with smalltalk, if I wanted to do all of this, then the process was as follows.

13. I would have to get out my trusted Canon G5X, since the pixels on my nokia phone camera just didn’t cut it, and snap away at these photos of my well-constructed life, perhaps even mould my life into instagram-worthy snapshots, so people could keep abreast of what I was up to, while I was at it.

14. But most importantly, making sure to keep the photos spontaneous-looking, as if they had been caught in the blinking of a smartphone’s eye.

15. Finally, upload them onto my computer with a usb cable once I got home.

16. And finally of course, the instagram post itself.

17. Posting was a bit of a minefield. The fake smartphone interface was so pixelated that I literally had to write posts with my eye 3mm away from the computer screen, which as you can imagine didn’t do my retina the world of good.

18. So all in all, one post took me on average the wrong side of 35 minutes. Not what one would describe as insta, but not too bad.

So what does the future hold.

My thinking is the relative labour-intensiveness of the whole process might make me more discerning with what I post, and as a result my quality control will take care of itself. But that’s for my followers to judge. So four days in, how is it going? Well as you can see I have three times less followers than people I follow, which in instagram-speak means for every one person that likes me, three people hate me and everything I represent.

Each unfollow is like a knife through the heart, but I know I just have to ride out these tricky first weeks. 

And I’m seeing my therapist on Monday.

HOW LONG YOU GONNA STICK AT IT THEN MATE.

I dunno. Until I get enough personal validation to make me happy I suppose. But not past the point where I start measuring my sense of worth by how many followers I get, or how many people like my posts, that kind of thing. Just find a sweet spot between the two.

*

So keep your eye’s peeled for some from-the-hip gramming guys.

Don’t forget to #followback.

(please follow back)

How Instagram Looks From Over Here

Time Out this week had a piece in it about Mayor of London Sadiq ‘I went to fabric when I was younger, I don’t want it closed down’ Khan, and how when walking around town he has to field a constant barrage of selfie requests from the baying populace.

Hey, it’s a nice problem to have rallies Sadiq, a clear contender for another top position, Mayor of the chill-out zone. But it got me thinking about selfies. And that the name bestowed upon them, now listed in the Collins English Dictionary, is more apt than might initially be obvious. Selfies aren’t just a photo taken of oneself, by oneself. In the current day’s oversharing electronic interconnectedness of everything, the purpose of selfies are resoundingly for oneself. Gettysburg shit.

The people clamouring for selfies of Sadiq aren’t in the hunt for a framed 10″ glossy to adorn the mantelpiece. They’re doing it to seek immediate validation from whoever might see the photo once its uploaded onto the internet. Likes are the new gold stars on the board at prep school.

Food-blogging I can tolerate, selfies with Sadiq, but the thing I can’t get my head around is the following. If you’re having brunch with friends, out in the beer-garden of a gastropub on a sunday for example, what possible need do you have to tell two hundred other people about it. The truth of the matter is this. No-one, nobody, looks at the photos of your brunch and thinks how nice.

Everyone looks on at that brunch and thinks shit.

My life is deficient. They must do this every sunday. Why don’t I ever do that shit. They look like they’re all having a great time. Hey, I know a few of them. Why wasn’t I invited. But they didn’t think of me. Maybe there’s a reason they didn’t invite me. Maybe they don’t like me. What did I do.

*

Why this need to interrupt an intimate setting with friends to take a photo of it, with a view to publicising the setting and its intimacy, therefore rendering it anything but intimate. I’m mystified. And the only explanation I can come up with to justify this behaviour, is that folk are posting these photos of their brunches to counter the fact that everyone else is telling you about the brunch they‘re having with their friends that you‘re not at, and you feel the need, nay the pressure, to keep up appearances.

So what emerges is a thinly-veiled one-upmanship that in its essence makes you feel inadequate, out of control, and unhappy. Longing for a less loaded time, when you could sit there twiddling your thumbs in blissful ignorance of anything going on anywhere other than the place where you might find yourself in that moment, bathing in the calm of merely being present, and looking forward to seeing people and learn what they’d been up to straight from the horse’s mouth, because they would tell you.

This is well trodden stuff and way too boring and depressing for a Friday afternoon, but like my Turkish electrician Redjeb told me on Thursday morning, The End of Days is closer than we think.

My Parents And Tech And John Travolta

Oscar Wilde said: 


The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.



In the last few years as I’ve watched my parents lean inquiringly over the parapet of their own mortality, it’s like they seem to be trying their damndest to be more and more down with the kids. My mother’s fondness for abbreviated txt spk busts my balls in an adolescent way I should really rise above, as does her newfound need to walk around everywhere with her iPad strapped to her forehead. I thought my old man was faring a bit better, but no.


I got this email from my mum on Saturday entitled.


 Pops watching Grease on lovely summer afternoon.

And the attached photo.

On one of the balmiest Saturdays to hit rural Buckinghamshire in recent memory, with the mercury pushing 32, it’s a photo of my old man, inside, chair pulled up to within 6 inches of our 2003-model Hitachi, hypnotised by the hit musical Grease. This is a man who chastises my brother and I as idiots, who can hardly bear to have a conversation with us because we haven’t finished In Search Of Lost Time, and who has about 0.4 friends because it takes him all of half an hour to declare anyone he ever meets a bore.

Not so intellectual now are you pops.

Annoyingly the case for my father’s defence is being aided by my mother’s obvious ‘mastery’ of the technology at her fingertips. The photo is that size because my mother sent all 12KB of it.

Would the below stand up in court? 

That could literally be a vase with some pussy willow sticking out of it. I sent her an email telling her it was possible to send photos as well as just their thumbnails and she went mental.


*

Then again, this is all good news.

My mum being in the throes of an unrequited love affair with her iPad and my father watering his unhealthy obsession with John Travolta is actually the best thing ever. Because what kills us faster than old age is loss of enthusiasm. And as much as all this makes me want to roll around on the floor and moan like a twelve year old, it’s also proof my parents aren’t throwing in the towel any time soon. Which means I don’t have to take any responsibility for my life. None whatsoever. Not yet.

Not So Smart Phone

This happened again.

This morning I absent-mindedly bit into the nail on my right thumb, removing a sizeable chunk. One of those ones where you lock-on, achieve pretty good purchase, get a third of the way along, assess, then close your eyes and drag on through. I didn’t reach the quick, it wasn’t painful. But it was pretty schoolboy.

Cutting your thumbnail a little shorter than normal shouldn’t normally warrant a lengthy bit of reportage. But things get interesting when I throw in the curveball of owning 2016’s most retro mobile phone.

Not something the tap-screen populace have to take into account anymore, but for complete manoeuvrability, a phone of this size is one hundred percent reliant on the maintenance of average to full length nails at all times. When you tamper with this paradigm, the phone’s user experience jumps straight off the 58th floor. The buttons are just too small. Having long nails should be the focus of the first chapter in the nokia 310’s freaking phone manual.

Basically I’ve screwed myself.

This is how I’d usually use the phone, sending a text to a broad.

This is me this morning trying to press the exact same buttons.

On a particularly memorable raid during the Blitz in World War II, the Luftwaffe succeeded in bombing a key munitions factory by the London docks, whilst absent-mindedly taking out the whole of Lewisham and Deptford.

It’s a situation I’m newly familiar with.

Using my phone this morning is a total shot in the dark. With thumbs my size and no nail to focalise my aim, I have to press five buttons blindly in the hope one of them will be right. That’s a 80% probability I’ll screw it up. I have no choice but to blanket-bomb my keypad with the surface area of a bratwurst. Imagine how long a text message is going to take. It’s no wonder nokia went under.

So yeah if today’s text repertoire isn’t up to scratch, channel some empathy and feel my pain. It’s a freak predicament. I mean, imagine someone with fingers as fat as this deciding to take up one of world’s smallest and most fiddly musical instruments, like a ukelele or something.

Ridiculous.