I’m in the middle of a longish book at the moment, but I’ve been finding time to read a few articles and I wanted to write a little about this one which appeared on the Guardian website last week and which resonated strongly with me. I don’t desire to live a completely disconnected life, but I’ve been feeling increasingly that the current technological age is forcing us into a light touch mode of being, there is a multitude of everything – articles, books, food, music, alcohol, drugs, clothes, information, pictures of cats, ways to connect, TV, games, competitions, downloads, freebies, buy one get one free – and we are encouraged to want more and more of everything, to look for the bargain, to buy two instead of the one we wanted (let alone needed), always being dissatisfied, feeling cheated or lacking in something. Powers of concentration are markedly curtailed, it is an effort to read a book or watch a TV series with a year’s break between one series and another, work which requires meticulous research or planning is considered tedious and everything is immediacy immediacy immediacy which equates to reactivity, stress, anger and anxiety. We all, or many of us in the Western world at least, are living perpetually on the edge of our seats waiting for the next thing to react to and anything which takes time is a waste of it and anything which is slow to deliver doesn’t get the chance. As Mark Boyle says:
“You become more acutely aware that industrial culture has replaced craft with efficiency, distinctiveness with standardisation, aspiration with ambition, rootedness with transience, contentment with progress, attentiveness with speed, and the natural rhythms of life with tight schedules.”
Perhaps it is true that the issue goes back to the industrial revolution, but perhaps it is more about globalisation and neoliberalism I don’t know. Whatever it is, what is true is that in Britain the standard of living is better than it has ever been, that resources are more available to us than ever yet inequality is massive, the rate of mental illness, of anxiety and stress are higher than ever and people self-medicate with coffee and alcohol and drugs (legal or not), or switch off by watching hours of television, or let it out by firing all barrels at some stranger on Twitter or a forum or the comments section of an online newspaper. At some point in our recent history the word ‘consumer’ began to be interpreted positively, it was a mark of distinction to consume, to use and throw away and not care for the waste. Things have become simultaneously worthless and the sole source of our worth. I tried to have a conversation with someone recently that was about progressiveness and the only thing they could understand was money. Those that have money have ‘progressed’ and those with less money will only ‘progress’ by getting it. Meanwhile our schools are factories churning out a workforce instead of helping people find out what they’re good at and what they love, and children learn that their value depends on the size of their future wage packet and the extent to which they increase GDP. How easily we have forgotten the value of other things: kindness, community, co-operation, good health, a diverse environment, friendship, decency, tolerance, respect, equanimity, wisdom. I was watching a news report about the pressure to abandon parks and green spaces thanks to the council budget cuts and it thoroughly depressed me. People benefit so much from green spaces, but unless you can force people to pay for entry the land is repurposed for other things being too ‘expensive’ to maintain.
I think I am in the course of withdrawing from being a consumer. I am wondering if in our purchase-led society that’s about as subversive as you can be. When I began the reduction in my reading volume I wanted not to read less, in fact I don’t believe I am reading less, but what I wanted was to retain more, to be more attentive, to value what I was reading beyond its superficial ability to distract or entertain me. I also wanted to break my habit of compulsive book buying, the insatiable itch for the next thing. This has been surprisingly easy to achieve, it is now almost the middle of February and I haven’t bought a book since December. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a massive change. I’ve also thinned out my library and will thin it out some more after some further reflection. What I didn’t expect was how this habit would so easily leach into other things, how I would start looking at my possessions with a critical eye and begin to ask myself when I use things and why I keep them. Consequently I haven’t bought any new clothing either, and I am thinking about the food I buy more carefully. My stationery purchases have plummeted. I no longer skim through articles, picking out what I assume are the salient points and moving on to the next one. I select the articles I want to read and I read them, often more than once. Is it right that all this content is free? I’m not sure, and I wonder whether if I truly value it I ought to pay something for it because this derth of free content also comes with constant advertising and click bait and an undercurrent of hysterical commentary. But whether I decide to pay for content or not, I am starting to deeply read it because someone has taken the time to write it and they deserve, then, at least that level of attentiveness from me.
I am finding more focus. I am more willing to do deep reading, deep work. I am not rushing as I once did. What I want is the connection that Boyle speaks of. I’ve come to realise that cyber space is not the way to achieve it. I have made some good friends, some good connections, in the cyber world and I have no intention of letting those go. But when I log on to Twitter what I find is an overwhelming swell of voices, it is like that scene in Star Wars: A New Hope when Alderan is destroyed by the Death Star and Obi Wan crumples under the pressure of thousands of voices crying out simultaneously. Sometimes that’s exactly how I feel. I want to listen, but I can do nothing for them and my momentary attention is worth nothing if all I ever really do is read and move on, worryingly distractedly what is becoming of the world.
It surprised me how much Boyle’s article moved me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. I think I have been dissatisfied with my lack of connection, of focus, for a long time. I can’t really imagine myself one day sipping blackberry wine I’ve made myself, whilst reading a book by a fire burning with logs I’ve chopped myself; I doubt I’ll ever be drawing water from the stream. There are challenges in what he writes – what he defines as ‘modern’ technology is arbitrary and he still makes use of the internet even if it’s only by someone else posting his article. I don’t think he’s aiming for some philosophically pure existence, but one which is more balanced and which allows him a better connection with his daily surroundings. I can’t quite do that, I don’t think, but I can live with greater meaning and I’m beginning to understand what that means for me. It isn’t stuff that matters, but connections. It isn’t what I take, but what I give. In learning to give an article or a book my full attention I have been reminded that it is not just the written word that need this from me, that everything I touch should receive it or perhaps I shouldn’t be touching it at all.