If you’re not careful the internet will fill up your life. Don’t forget to leave some time to stare into space…
“I recently finished the internet. I don’t know if you have ever done that. A picture of Bill Gates pops up and you get to enter your initials.” I love this David O’Doherty joke. Like all the best gags it’s funny because he says it in an adorable Irish accent. In addition to this, it’s true. He’s talking about a risk we all run in the digital world, where nothing is ever finished. Whatever your poison – news, LOLZ, hate, shopping, porn, anthropomorphism, Buzzfeed quizzes (“Which circle of hell from Dante’s Inferno are you in?”) – there is always more and never anybody to tell you when you’ve had enough. Pretty ironic in the age of “closure”.
It struck me a while back that I hadn’t looked out of the passenger window of a car for six months. Gazing out, lost in gormless meditation, has always been one of my favourite activities and, one particularly fabulous morning, when London just demanded to be stared at, I realised I’d stopped. I had fallen out of that habit and into another – instead of looking out I was looking in at my phone: reading about the outside world while ignoring the one that was.
Realising I’d surrendered a rare and pleasurable patch of idleness without noticing made me wonder what else I was sacrificing to graze online. How many books wasn’t I reading to spend time on this self-imposed Sisyphean task, say?
Ronan Keating observed that “life is a roller coaster.” The sweet fool was completely wrong. Life is, in fact, one of those new mixed-use road redevelopments where you can’t quite tell where the pavement is and which is the bit where the cars go. Like Ronan himself, it is beautiful but can be confusing: it contains both ornate brickwork and retractable bollards.
It used to be easy to recognise how all the pieces of your life fit together because they usually happened in different places. Now all bets are off, which is fun because you can go shopping at 3am or check in with a friend on the other side of the world with the ease of a nod to your neighbour. And yet… if you don’t decide what all the bits of your life are for, the internet will fill up the entire thing.
We all recognise this syndrome. It’s the reason a “digital detox” is the latest trend in “wellness” (try unplugged weekend.com if you’re interested). It’s why Arianna Huffington told us to check in our mobile phones at the bedroom door in her book Thrive. It even explains the £20 vegan bath product that claims it will “cleanse” you of EMFs (electromagnetic frequencies, rather than the indie dance hitmakers behind “Unbelievable”). But being aware of our digital consumption is not just an aspirational lifestyle choice for blow-dried CEOs and rich hippies. It’s not a value judgment that says doing yoga is better than playing Angry Birds. It’s an essential aspect of modern mental health and, I’d argue, part of your personal politics.
Spending time online must be an elective experience rather than a default setting: not just because of old-fashioned, don’t-forget-to-smell-the-roses idealism (although there is that) but because your online time is valuable to a whole load of people who aren’t you. As I write many of my colleagues at Guardian-Observer towers are mourning the death of privacy, thanks to the government’s Drip bill (accurately assessed as ‘the most tedious outrage ever” by my colleague Charlie Brooker).
Time is a precious, nonrenewable resource. It might be an idea to check that you’re spending yours on yourself. The weekend seems like the perfect place to start.
Follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenLaverne
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