Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Turn off, tune out, drop in.

What do people want from life? It’s time to realise that the future will be experienced offline.

Wed, Jul 17, 2013, 12:11


(Image: Pale Blue Dot)

Authentic. Experience. Emotion. These are words that used to mean something, but have long since been co-opted by advertising agencies in order to sell you beer and deodorant. Authenticity is not brand heritage. Experience is not interacting with an app. Emotion is not crying at a YouTube video.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent thoughts on the messiness of being human and why we are increasingly avoiding it, crystalised a lot of things I’ve been thinking about of late. When I have conversations with people about “the future of the internet”, I find myself saying that the future of online is not actually online, it’s offline.

In order to solve a problem, you have to identify that there is one in the first place. I think it will take some time for people to even admit the problems technology has caused. And this isn’t about free culture, or the changing nature of work, or how musicians or journalists find it hard to survive anymore, or how the disruption of industries such as AirBnB freaking out hotels can be positive. I’m interested in the internet’s impact on us as humans, on our social lives, our identities, everything from how we take photos of ourselves, to how we project our lives to even close friends, to how we negotiate sexual partners, to how phrases go viral and end up as dialect. Things change, man! Evolution! Like when everyone got an American accent after watching Friends! Sure, thing! But there are problems too. And it’s time to admit them to ourselves, and if not bash the genie back into the bottle, at least make our lives better.

Last year I wrote this piece about how I felt my attention span and memory was becoming addled from being online all the time. So I took steps to fix it. One of my remedies was taking a ‘brain hour’ everyday that was experienced offline; reading, listening to a podcast (ok, that’s not offline, but gimme a break), going to the cinema, going for a run or a wander,  check out an exhibition, writing (with a pen!), and so on. Doing these kind of exercises readjusts your brain and makes it fizz again, because technology causes numbness. The numbness it creates I would see akin to all those hours I have spent wandering around virtual cities in Grand Theft Auto, or ending up in a YouTube hole, or scrolling through photos on Facebook, or consuming loads of celebrity gossip, or accidentally being hypnotised by the live feed on E4 of the Big Brother house during the day when they faffed around from couch to couch. It’s the numbness you feel when you come out the other end of an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. It causes numbness because it’s not actually good for you. And once you’re numb, it’s hard to snap out. You become imprisoned. Just as hippies felt they wanted to burst free from the conservatism of their war-hardened parents – turn on, tune in, drop out – millennials too will yearn to break free from the wireless prison of technology: turn off, tune out, drop in.

Essentially, this comes down to what we want out of life. No one is going to lie on their death bed and think “I wish I tweeted more”. The negative impact of technology is that it detaches us. Emoticons are not emotions, Facebook likes are not hugs, texting is not connecting. Never before have we had so many ways to communicate, and never before have those ways been so detached on an emotional level. Just as someone sitting in an office controlling drones from a computer can kill someone with a click thus dispensing with the messiness of warfare, we offer virtual consolation for upset friends instead of facing their tears in person.

I’ve recently noticed an increase in popularity of Beat literature, and following on from that some forms of New Journalism. Maybe I just think that’s the case because once you notice something, you feel like it’s everywhere. But every bookshop I go into seems to have Kerouac or Hunter S Thompson in a prominent position. I even bought ‘Off The Road’ by  Carolyn Cassady the other day. The last few generations have sought out that literature because it speaks of wildness and spontaneity and adventure. Maybe we’re looking for that again, because you sure as hell aren’t going to find it on Facebook.

And when we do actually meet up in real life, our phones – at this point a cross between a pacifier and a pair of handcuffs – constantly remove us from interacting with what is actually physically around us, with alerts, notifications, mail-checking and tweets, diversions and distractions. The easiest point of reference for this is at gigs, where people view the stage through screens (something that everyone from Karen O to Solange is beginning to get sick of.) But when you’re actually trying to talk to someone, how many times do they just get sucked into their screen? I was a divil for this up until recently, when like my ‘brain hour’ experiment, I’ve made a conscious decision not to take my phone out when I’m in company in a social situation, such as having a pint outside Grogans, or dinner with friends. The habit is embedded in my behaviour since I got my first Nokia and my parents would glare at me across the kitchen table while I was engrossed in texting classmates.  I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s hard. Sometimes I find myself doing it automatically. But once you make a decision to stop doing it, it’s also quite freeing. You follow the conversation better, you really hear what people are saying without drifting off to compose tweets in your mind. Imagine if every time you met up with people, someone at the table took a rock out every ten minutes and stared at it. Weirdo, right? Why should we treat phones any differently?

I know we have been conditioned by consensus to think that constantly choosing your phone over a human in front of you is acceptable behaviour. But it’s not. I’m not sure what it is about the human condition that draws us away from a face opposite us to a screen in our pocket, but I know there’s something wrong with it. It doesn’t feel right.

My favourite part of The Bling Ring was when they were at the club after planning what they were wearing all evening, and when they got there, all they did was look at their phones. If you spend most of your night staring at a screen or taking photos, what kind of good time is that? That’s bullshit, my friend. And don’t even get me started on the sociopathic narcissism of selfies.

The Future
Everyone is constantly talking about the future within the framework of technology. Yet it’s obvious at this stage that there’s a growing discontent about digital life. I’m not talking about a discontent in terms of those who debate the validity of the internet, which is very much an old V new debate pitching digital evangelists on one side against fuddy duddies on the other side who don’t understand the technology they’re criticising. I’m talking about understanding the technology, and then seeing a life beyond it. I am achingly familiar with many of these amazing new tools, but like many people, simultaneously able to see the futility of many of them.

Most people like me – in their twenties, thirties and forties – are young enough to have adopted a lot of this technology, but also old enough to have a residual emotional memory of what life was like before people photographed their brunch. I’d be lying if I said that all modern technology is useless. Of course it isn’t. But an awful lot of the things hawked to us; social media platforms, apps, new phones and tablets, are superfluous. Digital consumption, like all consumption, should be minimal, not gorging. But it’s hard to have buyer’s remorse when peer pressure instigates the adoption so many of these tools. I refuse to use some tools my friends use; Facebook, SnapChat, WhatsApp. I have enough ways to communicate with people. I don’t need any more distractions.

Because of the growing discontent of how so much technology is turning us into narcissistic, self-involved, self-congradulating ass hats, I think people will start to examine their behaviour and then maybe strive to change it. I believe this will result in more and more of ‘the future’ being ‘experienced’ offline. That’s where the interesting things will start to happen, because we’re beginning to really crave it. And it won’t just be about experiencing-cramming, so we can go back to our social networks and broadcast all the amazing and fun things we’ve just done.

No one can argue that an hour on TMZ is preferable to a walk on the beach, or that busy WhatsApp banter is better than dinner with friends, or that staring at your phone is more fun than an in-person conversation. No one can argue that social media is more ‘meaningful’ than real life.

So what’s going to happen? I don’t really know. Maybe more events we be built around unique experiences – Drop Everything is a good example of that. Maybe you will actually have to be there, as opposed to getting a sense of it from the Instagram feed. Maybe people will tap each other on the shoulder at gigs and ask them to lower their phones. Maybe people will stall an online conversation and say “hey, wanna just meet up instead?” Maybe events will become more word of mouth instead of a bombardment of Facebook invites. Maybe people will continue to become increasingly involved in the various ‘talk’ events happening instead of ranting on Twitter. Maybe people will start taking more breaks from the internet. Maybe people will pick up books again. Maybe people’s holidays will also include a break from technology as well as a break from work and home. Maybe people will realise that it’s hard to be creative when you’re constantly being interrupted.

In the same way that there have been mild revolutions in other areas of consumption – the moves towards organic food and ethical fashion, for example – maybe the digital world will also undergo a similar process as people become more conscientious about privacy. I don’t think there will be a massive backlash, rather a gradual and considered examination of how we behave online, and an adjustment in balance with regards to what’s actually good for us – what’s useful and helpful and complimentary. Maybe we will start to step away from the screens, and back out into the world.

And yes, I get the hypocrisy of someone with a blog and 70,000 tweets writing this. But, hey, I’m trying.