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Digital Defeatism November 28, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, That's Entertainment.

Not entirely sheepishly, I must nonetheless report my recent and loudly trumpeted digital hiatus a qualified failure. My regular reader may recall that I’d hoped to eschew internet and mobile phone use for at least a week and strictly speaking, I did. But after eight days I couldn’t manage to execute an admittedly unexpected magazine commission by landline and Royal Mail alone, and from there on in it was a slippery slope.

Wiser and more self-disciplined heads than mine scoffed at my decision to cut myself off completely from the modern world, but so easily seduced was I by the plethora of information and its near unlimited right of entry, I had found it impossible to restrict my digital dalliance to a specific timetable. Indeed I’d speculated that access to other life- and intelligence-enhancing activities was suffering as a consequence of being wedded to the web, and in this respect I was vindicated.  I did indeed do a lot more reading, both of books and periodicals, and I also found myself having long and often illuminating ‘phone conversations with people who were as pleasantly surprised as I was to pick up their landlines and find someone on the other end not trying to sell them home insurance.

I actually received a couple of letters from friends who’d taken my original online statement of intent seriously, thus reviving the ancient art of physical correspondence which I much enjoyed and soon embellished with a modest blizzard of postcards, in a couple of cases prompting welcome if slightly bemused ‘phone calls from surprised recipients. In my best ‘Outraged of East Grinstead’ mode I even fired off a couple of letters to newspapers criticising columns I’d found particularly irritating, although unlike my earlier (emailed) salvo to Prospect magazine attacking their aggrandizement of think tanks, neither of them were published. Overall though, I somehow felt more relaxed, with more time for reflection and being less attuned to the demands of others, demands which have inevitably become defined by the digital over a decade or so. And in this respect I can honestly say it made a valuable difference. Having said which, one of the iniquities of email and text messaging is that we are tempted to fire off and expect instant responses to our own needs, whims and fancies with only minimal forethought.

Sadly if inevitably, once the rot had set back in and I started to check, if not always return emails again (about day nine), switched my mobile phone back on (day eleven) and answered my first text (day thirteen), it became blindingly obvious that modern man cannot live alone, or at least not without instant digital gratification. Put another way – we are all prisoners of technology.

But for disingenuous techno-luddites such as I now obviously am, there was one bit of good news whilst I was away, and one bit of bad. Penguin announced that they would not be supplying their new ebooks to libraries for fear of hackers removing their protective encryption – in which case wither protection? – and pirating them to all and digital sundry. But countering this glimmer of hope for the survival on the printed word, we also learnt that the energy consumption of the average UK household has increased five-fold since 1987, much of it due to our use of computers and associated devices. In which case wither global warming? And don’t get me started on bloody windfarms and wave-power.

As a not entirely irrelevant aside, in yesterday’s Observer, agony aunt Mariella Frostrup attempted to cheer up a woman so beset by fears of the imminent collapse of civilisation due to economic foment, sectarian hatred, blah-blah-blah, that she was actively considering suicide. And this just after watching Jeff  Nichols’s new film, Take Shelter, in which a decent American father, played with a growing intensity by Michael Shannon, addresses his similarly prescient visions of Armageddon by basically, like, going bonkers and building a sturdy underground bunker in which he incarcerates his family.

As for me, and despite both Mariella’s somewhat unsympathetic advice (basically “Get a grip, dearie – our great world leaders know what they’re doing”) and last week’s prosecution of a gang producing fake and borderline poisonous Glen’s vodka (which for years I’d happily been buying at Harry Tuffins in Knighton for £12.45 a litre), I’ve managed to find something called Tamova at an even lower £11.99… I know how I’m going to face our uncertain and disagreeable future. Cheers!

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Doing Without Digital November 2, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, That's Entertainment.

In Steven Soderbergh’s latest  movie, Contagion, the great Elliott Gould’s deeply cynical government big-wig dismisses the Jude Law character’s iffy conspiracy theories by snapping, “You’re a blogger, not a journalist, no-one’s going to take any notice of you.”

And so I return to one of my regular if rather forlorn topics, namely the pointlessness of my writing, and you reading, this. But only briefly, because when I’ve successfully submitted that rare thing, a blessedly well paid bit of print journalism I’ve just been working on, I’m going to conduct a little experiment which I think may put the interweb, or at least the tiny sliver of it that I inhabit, into some relief. My plan is to turn off my web browser and with it my email account, and also my mobile phone, and keep them that way for at least a week – possibly much longer.

Although I personally haven’t read their experiences, I’m aware that various hacks and even respected writers have embarked on similar adventures, but since I’m not being paid to find out how or indeed if life changes as a consequence of being digitally disconnected, my motives are probably quite different. And they go like this.

I now reckon that I average two to three hours online every day, seven days a week – more, many more, if engaged in some heavy-duty research.

I also have an increasing tendency to email or text people I can’t easily get hold of by phone, or don’t actually want to talk to for fear of embarrassment or ennui. And I also suspect that the time it takes to successfully conclude such ‘conversations’, as we now so erroneously refer to them, is much longer than might be taken up by a simple phone call. For example, just yesterday I spent five minutes receiving or sending a total of eight texts in order to meet up with a friend which could’ve been accomplished by one 30 second phonecall. Five minutes which involved repeatedly interrupting and losing my train of thought over something I was trying to write, which in fact probably meant ten or fifteen more minutes of lost labour.

The consequences of being liberated from this is something are both tantalising and terrifying – the former because I don’t manage to spend as much time as I used to reading, listening to music, talking to friends, futzing around (that’s a technical term for using sophisticated engineering techniques) with my cars etc., etc., the latter because I fear that all this extra time mightn’t be much use because ten years welded to the web has limited my ability to concentrate on reading anything non-digital except wine labels and, cunning though it is, The Week.

Talking of which, The Week’s publisher, my friend Felix Dennis, for many years had printed on his personal office stationary something like, “We do not, and never will, have email”. Moreover he’s the only person I knowingly know who doesn’t have a mobile phone.  All very admirable if purity of communication is what we’re talking about – and here aboard my high horse I surely am – but you might reasonably wonder how he could successfully run a thriving print and digital publishing empire without such apparently essential tools. The answer, of course, is that he has a retinue of trusted assistants who do have email addresses and mobile phones and he simply barks out his orders, enquiries and thoughts to them which they then disseminate to the, ahem, end users. That said, Felix is also the only person I still maintain a regular, if occasionally robust postal correspondence with.

And whilst I certainly savour that, I am not filthy rich and he is. However it does remind me of when I was at least quite affluent and quite successful and had p.a’s who could do my bidding. Tellingly, that was when I worked for or owned publishing companies of various sizes in which the efficiency, the number and the quality of staff were a crucial factor in the success or failure of our magazines.  In principle that remains so, but the jobs they do are quite different now. Magazines, newspapers and for all I know websites rely very little on full-time employees to produce their content, much of which is contracted out (but without secure contracts, of course) to freelancers or third parties who in turn employ only freelancers. This is a mixed blessing: on the one hand it means media can be more specialised yet remain economically viable with titchy readerships (hurrah); on the other it means their few permanent staff are perpetually overworked and inefficient, emphasis is placed on the cheapest possible content which invariably means that any given periodical lacks the common, unifying characteristics that once made great titles great, and so overall these titles’ quality, and ergo their fortunes, deteriorate (boo-hoo).

But this is also a theme I’ve warmed to in the past and like the object of Elliott Gould’s derision, it make not a jot of difference to anyone. I’m hoping therefore that in abandoning the digital, my own communication skills will be revitalised, my vocabulary broadened, I’ll return to using books, libraries and the phone to find stuff out, and I’ll elicit more responses like that from a friend who admitted with some astonishment that our ten minute phone conversation – landline-to-landline, natch – was the longest purely social such exchange he’d had in years. And for all I know, I might just restore the Royal Mail’s fortunes, too.

So if you don’t hear from me for a while,  it’s because you haven’t got my landline number or postal address. Enjoy!

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