Doing Without Digital November 2, 2011Posted 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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