Panic a natural reaction to recession in internet age


The popularity of blogs, websites and e-mail is destroying our confidence because we hear so many bad news stories

IN THE middle of last week, I tipped over from a state of mild fearfulness about the global economy to one of wild panic over what is to become of us.

On Wednesday, I became host to all sorts of crazy worries – big, unmanageable ones as well as little, stupid ones. I worried about there being anarchy on the streets of London – while at the same time fretting over whether I should have painted the boxroom cream rather than white.

This is the sort of mixed-up mental state I am familiar with from bouts of wakefulness at three in the morning. Never before have I known it at three in the afternoon.

The thing that tipped me over was tiny and distant and concerned a woman I have never met, who lives 3,000 miles away.

There were plenty of other bigger things that happened to me last week, but none of them really moved me.

On Monday, I stayed at the InterContinental Hotel in Cologne – a vast temple to the god of business travel – and found myself in a ghost hotel. The miles of corridors I walked to my room were deserted and the breakfast buffet bar offered a bounty of cheese and ham, but there were no takers.

On Tuesday, I met a perpetually cheerful friend who runs a hitherto successful advertising agency who was grimly preparing to fire large numbers of her capable staff. And later that day I made a nasty discovery that my own financial cushion was considerably less comfortable than I had thought it was. All of this was dismal, but not unbalancing.

Instead, I tripped and fell at a moment when I should have been safe from economic harm. I was sitting in the rare books room at the British Library surrounded by scholars in scuffed shoes for whom the recession is not even of academic interest.

If I had stuck to my writing, I might have been all right.

But instead I started checking e-mails and wasting time on the internet and found myself reading a story from the Huffington Postabout a nameless, well-dressed woman on Madison Avenue who had lost her job and was begging on the street to feed her four children.

The story may not even have been true, yet the image lodged itself in my mind so that all the other depressing things I went on to read stuck to it and looked even uglier than they already did.

I read on my colleague Luke Johnson beating his breast and saying we must expect years of economic misery. Then I read variously that classes of MBA students were graduating with not a job between them, and that the wives of unemployed bankers were so distressed that they were setting up support groups to provide a shred of comfort.

By the time I cycled home from the library, I was in such a state of anxiety that I marvelled at the way ordinary people were still popping in and out of Starbucks on the Euston Road as if nothing was wrong.

This is our first experience of recession in the internet age, and so far I don’t like it one little bit. You could say that the internet makes the recession more bearable as there are all those networks to help people get jobs and there is eBay for buying second-hand things.

Yet such things are trivial compared to what the internet is doing to our confidence. The internet has created a global psyche. The web has mentally joined us at the hip, so we can no longer put our heads in the sand. If that sounds painfully contorted, it is because it is. Just as no country can decouple itself from the ailing global economy, none of us as individuals can decouple ourselves from the ailing global psyche.

Through blogs, websites and e-mails, the world’s economic ills are fed to us on a drip all day long. It is not just that we hear about bad things faster, we hear about more of them and in a more immediate way. My worries become yours and yours become mine. On the internet, a trouble shared is not a trouble halved. It is a trouble needlessly multiplied all over the world. After reading this article, people in Australia will surely start worrying about my paint colours, too.

This would not matter so much if it were not for the fact that confidence is the medicine that cures a recession and all this sharing of bad news leaves one with no confidence at all.

If I had been alive during the last comparable recession, more than 60 years ago, I would have limited my news injection to reading the Timesevery morning. In those days it had a front page given over not to big scary headlines, but to small classified ads. The news inside would probably have left me a little depressed over breakfast, but I would have had the rest of the day to recover my equanimity.

Instead, I sit over my computer all day and feed my anxiety.

The day after I read about the begging woman, I was sent something even more upsetting. A banker at Commerzbank e-mailed me to say that he and 499 other senior colleagues had just been summoned to the bank’s headquarters and told to write their ideas on A4 pieces of paper and stick them on the plastic branches of a tree.

In good times I used to delight in stories like these. Aren’t people silly, I used to think with a complacent air of superiority. But now my thinking is different: if banks’ response to the current crisis is to stick bits of paper on fake trees, then the only rational thing for the rest of us to do is to surrender ourselves to panic.

– ( Financial Timesservice)