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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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1. Russell HUnter - November 2, 2011

Good thinking Mark – turn it all off. I’m not a journalist, nor do I make my living from any kind of print medium, but it has been my contention for many years now that email gives more and more people to talk more and more rubbish to more and more other people who never wanted to hear it in the first place. (QED)

markswill - November 3, 2011

QED indeed Russ, and if we want to hear more rubbish, we’ll just spend more evenings in the local boozer (which I certainly plan to do, incidentally).

2. davidcharleslancaster - November 3, 2011

Hold on now!
Was priming the HRD with oil, and saving up for gas, for a visit to Wales’ most sophisticated Robin’s Nest style bistro. What now?
Is it on? Is it off?
What, whose, print dollar has seduced such new-found, digital silence? Was looking forward to the lamb tagine.
We should be told.
Dave Lancaster

markswill - November 3, 2011

Sadly Dave, I’ve had to back out of the restaurant deal. The building survey revealed the need for so many expensive repairs and other Environmental-Bloody-Health-related works that I couldn’t countenance taking it on unless the vendors greatly reduced their price which, understandably perhaps, they wouldn’t Whether Presteigne will now get the Indian takeaway instead is uncertain, but I’m hoping someone with the right approach, deeper pockets and the appropriate catering experience (!) will step forward and buy it: it’s still a good business, but my pockets were only so deep and I wasn’t prepared to take on a bank loan… always assuming an unemployable old Luddite like me would get one!

3. Pete - November 3, 2011

I remember this sort of talk about telephone landlines back in the 60s and 70s. “I’m going to pull out the plug. People expect you to be at their beck and call all the time.” Which is true sometimes, I suppose.

Last week the exchange in our village developed a fault and, although the broadband light glowed bravely on the router, the internet and email were unavailable for 24 hours or so. My daughter wailed about her Facebook friends losing touch. i knew that some work emails would get bounced. Yet we had a nice evening sitting round the stove, talking and reading (yes, a 14 year old picks up a book again during prime Facebook time) and all was well with the world. We remarked on how pleasant the whole experience was.

Then normal service was resumed at the exchange. However we didn’t rip out the plugs and vow to repeat the stove-centric evening, not because we won’t repeat it, but because actually we know we can. It isn’t difficult to step away from any screen. I went back to work with an enhanced appreciation of both the benefits that the digital developments have brought and the knowledge that creating time away from the computer is also still fun. I like the digital world. I like the vast array of knowledge that is available, and the binary library isn’t so very different from the printed one, but I still like to read a book by the fire.

Perhaps that alone shows that I am old fashioned though – seeing the internet as a place of accumulated knowledge rather than merely entertainment. Online games don’t appeal to me, and random trawling through links and Stumbleupon seems indulgent. Whatever, it is possible to keep it all in perspective. I wish you a happy week in the real world, Mark, and look forward to welcoming you back at the end of your experiment. Digital is the future, come what may.

Shent from my Mac after a digital-free evening down the pub…

4. Paul Blezard - November 3, 2011

The digital world is indeed a double-edged sword.
FWIW, neither Robert Elms, nor Danny Baker has a mobile phone (both presenters on BBC London Radio).
And if I weren’t digitally connected, I wouldn’t be able to tap out these pearls of wisdom from this seaside boarding house in Side, Turkey!
As you can tell, I lack the discipline to make best of use of my own valuable time when so many digital distractions abound!

markswill - November 3, 2011

Your last sentence hits the nail on the head Blez, and as I wrote, this digital conditioning that inculcates attention deficit disorder is one of my major fears.

5. Hed Maginnis - November 3, 2011

I never move without a mobile, (The mobiles arrived with late nights, dangerous times and some seriously shite vehicles) but there’s few with the number. Thank you for the modern technology is rubbish bit and I’m going back to middle aged technology, although to be honest I’ve yet to hear of anyone waxing lyrical about the joys of a Renault 12 or a Vauxhall Carlton.

So the restaurant, will it have Little Feat?
All the best

markswill - November 3, 2011

Not sure what “middle aged technology” is Hed – bakelite phones with chromed circular dials? But I’m certainly a fan of Lotus Carltons, and even have a soft spot for Renault’s blighted 12. As for the restaurant, well yes it would’ve have Little Feat playing softly(ish) though the speakers, but see my reply to Dave Lancaster, below.

Hed Maginnis - November 3, 2011

Ah, I see. I’ve always been wary of Welsh cuisine since someone introduced me to the joys of lava bread. You know what they say. One door closes and another one slams in your face.

6. catherine denvir - November 3, 2011

but you haven’t left your postal address

7. markswill - November 3, 2011

But I thought you already had it… who else could those bags of truffles and bottles of fine Tuscan grappa have come from?

8. Paul Blezard - November 3, 2011

Mark said: “But I’m certainly a fan of Lotus Carltons, and even have a soft spot for Renault’s blighted 12”.
Strange to relate, Turkey seems to be absolutely choc-a-bloc with Renault 12s, many of them newish-looking, many of the taxis. Makes me think that Renault must have moved all their R12 production lines to Turkey or summat. A bit like a 70s version of India’s 1950s Austin Ambassadors, still in production today. Very impressed by the general level of technology and development here though, from roads, trucks and coaches to Wifi in every hotel room, no matter how cheap and otherwise basic. I am now typing via free Wifi in Antalya airport waiting for my Easyjet flight back to Gatwick. Just had very nice Pide (kinda-sorta Turkish pizza) for a reasonable price, and a crap cup of coffee for an extortionate one. Meal deals with Coke are ubiquitous – Coke – the 21st Century opium of the masses?
All the airport prices are in Euros, even though Turkey is not yet in the EU, let alone the Eurozone! Turks seem happy to take Euros almost everywhere. I suspect that Greece has lost much of its tourism to Turkey since it joined the Euro, and might get much of it back if it left!

markswill - November 3, 2011

Blez, Renault did indeed set up 12 production line in Turkey, which became the basis for the Dacia brand. Originally they were even more poorly made than the French version, but at least the Turkish climate meant they didn’t/don’t rust as badly.

Paul N. Blezard - November 4, 2011

Aha! That explains everything. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Renault 12, since it was in one of them that I did all 12 of my driving lessons and in which I passed my test, first time, in September 1975. No practice in anything else, since neither of my parents could drive. Somewhat more successful than my disastrous supermoped test a couple of years earlier, which was a sorry tale of teenage ignorance, stupidity, bravado, incipient coil failure and complete misunderstanding of the examiner’s instructions…..

9. WTK - November 3, 2011

Our private emails recently spoke of your self-flagellation and lo, and behold, you opt for mental self-flagellation. I hope you don’t go white-knuckling while abstaining. I will be calling your mobile on auto speed dial 24/7 if you need a fix…it’s my Digital Duty…

markswill - November 3, 2011

Thanks Mr T, it’s reassuring to know that you still have my welfare to heart. Alternatively, just send money, lots and lots of money.

10. riviera don - November 3, 2011

My wife read your latest to me as I lay on the couch reading a book. Beat you.

markswill - November 3, 2011

You always were one jump ahead of me Donny… Which is strange, considering you’re so young and I’m so old.

11. Benzina Moto - November 3, 2011

Or is this need for regular digital junkie-fixes connected to our reduced attention spans? One of the dozen-odd current editors of Bike was recently very rude about 1970s Bike’s road tests length – up to 6000 words: a short story to me, which is why I loved them. In the same issue a five day tour of Norway on a new Guzzi was dealt with in just 600 words. Friend and fine writer Jan Leek has made the journey and thought it deserved twenty times that amount. With the right scribbler (like Jan) I’d agree. The only good thing about these scattergun pieces is that I can read them in Tesco’s and not have to pay…so they’d be better off teasing you online and doing the story properly in print

Paul Blezard - November 4, 2011

Hear Hear! Couldn’t agree more Mr Moto! All the motorcycle magazines used to carry much longer articles about everything. Some would say that I’m biased because I used to pen some of the longest, but I say that many readers (including me) do actually enjoy an article they can ‘get their teeth into’, especially if it’s some kind of adventure, like the one you mention. It’s one of the reasons that I like magazines like Wired and Esquire, which still carry articles of a decent length that you can’t read while waiting in the check-out queue.

12. Martin Craig - November 4, 2011

Good luck with it, Mark. Leaving the world of mains services (electricity, gas & water) four years ago was one of our smartest moves; we only run the genny at dusk & therefore have most of the day without web or email access. No mobile signal for a 7 mile radius & no tv means that we can get on with creative stuff with few interruptions.

Sorry to hear about the restaurant deal, but glad you’re not saddled with loans or interfering business angels. Tread lightly & stay well, myet!

13. Peter Silverton - November 4, 2011

even though i’m sitting here on a friday evening around eight reading this on my laptop in my office (while listening to a podcast of moog music from npr), i can share (terrible word but appropriate) three things . . .

one, i spent ten days or so away earlier this year without once looking at (or thinking about) my email – no one noticed or cared – anything important reached me anyway

two, we have a no email policy in our company – that is, we won’t contact customers via email – it saves so much time and confusion – it makes the team’s workday so much less stressful – it probably saves us a fortune, too, in time wasted on time-waster emails – people think nothing of whacking off an email in the midnight hours and getting furious when it’s not replied to before breakfast – if they can’t email you and you don’t email them, they just have to wait for the telephone to wake up

three, i tell everyone that i don’t check my email very often and only look at my texts occasionally – this lowers expectations wonderfully and people who i want to be in touch with call me – which is far nicer and far more productive – as with your text vs phone call thing

shh, now, mark’s gone away

markswill - November 7, 2011

I don’t know what exactly your business is these days Pete, but I applaud your policy of not pursuing it by email. In fact given where we are, I’m also somewhat amazed. And from tomorrow lunchtime, I shall discover how that might work for me…

markswill - November 7, 2011

I don’t know what exactly your business is these days Pete, but I applaud your policy of not pursuing it by email. In fact given where we are, I’m also somewhat amazed.

14. Linda Stokes - November 7, 2011

You don’t really expect me to believe yer gonna quit watching on-line porn , do you? hahahahahahaha…so while yer on, might as well do yer e-mail….

markswill - November 8, 2011

Sadly Dr Linda, I will indeed have to forgo my daily diet of online porn, but fortunately I still have a few sticky, dog-eared copies of Razzle, Juggs and Readers Wives magazines to sustain my unhealthy appetites… plus of course my treasured photos of you emerging from the Santa Monica surf, circa 1979.

15. Linda Stokes - November 9, 2011

Hmmm well, feel free to get the audio from my land-line…
or we could try verbal intercourse.

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