What has the internet done to my brain? It’s an interesting question, and one modern science is as of yet unable to answer fully. To do this it would need a scan of my brain from around 1996, when I first encountered the internet, and from today, when I’m spending anything between five and eight hours a day staring at it getting cross.
Perhaps once cognitive science becomes more sophisticated, and also time travel is invented, clipboard-wielding super-boffins could be sent to the nineties and confirm what I already suspect, which is that the internet has borked my attention span and has left me more anxious, more stressed, and entirely addicted to the tiny dopamine hits of phone and internet addiction.
I realise I’m not alone here. When I was younger and more smug, I used to sit on trains and inwardly snark at people unable to go two minutes without phoning their wives to tell them they’re on the train. But those were quaint, noisier days: now everyone is glued to their phones instead, such as the young gentleman next to me yesterday who spent his journey silently but desperately scrolling through Top Gear videos of cars exploding and crashing and so on.
I’d like to say I took up regular commuter cycling so that there would be a couple of hours a day I wouldn’t be in front of a computer or a phone, but this wouldn’t be true. But I did become increasingly aware that it was when most of my thinking got done. Which raises the question: what was I doing the rest of the time?
Part of my old job was to be “on top of” Twitter and Facebook and all that – think of all social media as a horrible writhing pit of talking point snakes, and me (and plenty of other people like me) desperately trying to figure out which of these to report back to our editors. The old media topics of morning meetings were mainly synthesised via the Today programme’s regurgitated tabloid agenda.
To this very old fashioned groupthink was added the anarchic exciting and equally unscientific jumble of memes and trends and panics. News had become minute by minute, and my brain was full of so much stuff I probably never needed to know in the first place.
A random example: I once wrote about Emily Thornberry – remember her, wonder where she is now – getting sacked for taking a photo of a council house with an England flag on it, and immediately being accused of hating the white working class. Wild times. Early signs of the culture war that now completely engulfs us. But knowing about this is totally useless brain mulch when thrown together with the other billion things one is obsessively scrolling through.
I don’t have that job any more, and I no longer have to look at Facebook, the place where baby boomers go to read about anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. My life has been better as a result. But I’m still on Twitter, because of all the social media currently available it most reminds me of the anarchic early days of forums, blogs, and most importantly of all, a lot of people on there make me laugh and see the world differently. Also, memes.
I’ve made friends through Twitter. I’ve found out about stuff I would never have found out about otherwise. Following younger and cleverer people than me has helped me better understand a range of topics, from the fight for trans rights to environmental collapse to following the money behind the Tory party’s gradual transformation into a populist, borderline far-right project dedicated to subverting democracy, crushing what remains of society, and making a few people very very rich indeed.
You knew there was a but.
I don’t know what all of this is doing to my mental health. Whereas before I was at least on Twitter for a purpose, I’m now there out of force of habit. I’m not very good at it – it’s not like I often post zinging and amusing tweets that get thousands of RTs, and when I say “often” I mean “ever at all”. I interact with a few lovely people, I get tipsy and cross and write furious things about the state of the world, then wake up in a panic about them only to note they have been largely ignored, and were in fact broadly indistinguishable from the “content” I post when I am not tipsy or cross.
I have no real “voice” on Twitter, though the one that occasionally surfaces is that alter-ego I’ve been cultivating for twenty years, of a lonely man who takes everything too seriously and writes lots of letters to the local newspaper, possibly in green ink. But now all the local newspapers are dead, my letters are just a few words long and on the internet, and it’s increasingly difficult to understand where that character ends and I begin.
Twitter isn’t my medium. Blogging is my medium, as it gives me space to develop my ideas and write sentences that are too long. This is how I write, and the need for an audience is one I still struggle with, from journal entries to articles in national newspapers. Does that make me sound like an idiot? I hope so. But it’s true.
On Monday night I saw a documentary about Bill Drummond, one half of KLF, the band who released a handful of rave bangers, pretended a car wrote and released a song about Doctor Who, burned a million quid, and wrote a very important book about how to get a number one single.
Mention Bill Drummond to most people and you get blank stares. If you’re lucky you say “What Time Is Love”, and they understand. The past three conversations about them have ended with the other people getting furious about the fact they burned a million quid. “Why did they do that,” being the general answer. I explained that they weren’t sure, and went on a tour of Scottish art venues to ask people why. This made people angry.
Bill is currently in the middle of a twelve year tour, doing art in various countries around the world until he is 72, the age his dad was when he died of a heart attack. The logic being, Bill reckons he’ll do well to reach the same age, and he’ll hopefully be alive to make that final walk to Damascus, literally and metaphorically.
Drummond clearly had mixed feelings about the documentary, which followed him on two legs of his project – first in Kolkata, India, then in Lexington, North Carolina. At the book signing afterwards, I asked him what he thought of it. “I don’t know – I haven’t seen it”, he said. He’d shuffled out of the auditorium during the break, only to come back and strip off down to his pants to perform a play about his White Saviour Complex.
I enjoyed the documentary, but it made me sad. Drummond wasn’t sure he wanted to be in the film, and spends half his screen time asking whether he’s being filmed. He seems like he’ll be happier to get on with his art and his writing without being bothered by the vagaries of proving the thing actually happened. His co-artist on the project, who has been following him around the world and photographing him, appears in a play at the end of the film also written by Drummond. In it, he, or another Scottish man pretending to be him, wonders whether she could maybe stop taking photographs and write plays about it with him instead.
I am not Bill Drummond, a highly successful musician and artist struggling to understand what it all means. But I do admire his ability to come up with ideas and follow them through to their logical or illogical conclusion, even if they seem like an absolute waste of time to everyone watching (if he allows them to watch). I’m going to try to be more like Bill, and I’m going to try and spend much, much less time on the internet.
But I think I might start writing more postcards. And I’d like you to write me postcards too, whoever you are.