Social Networks are Killing Our Children and Our Societies
JACKING OUT By Comedian and Social Writer Stephen Fry
What might be the proudest boast of any young person now, teenager, or twenty-something? They have been given, willy nilly, demographic tags like ‘millennial’, ‘post-millennial’, ‘Generation Z’, ‘i-Gen’ — not out of anybody’s acute cultural observation, sympathy or understanding but either to bulk up a HuffPo article or to delineate convenient advertising categories, within which many sub-categories can be established. You are not a person, you are an algorithmic assumption, a mould into which hot selling-jelly may be poured.
So. What might be the proudest boast of these young?
I’ve got this app.
I’ve written this app.
My YouTube Channel won an award.
I’ve got xy followers on thisdotcom?
Well maybe. But I’m going to suggest that if I was young now, my proudest boast would be: ‘My friends and I, we disappeared ourselves. No social media, no email, no chat, no wifi, no selfies, no SMS, no smartphones. We did it. We did this thing. We Got Off The Grid.’
Why should anyone want to dissociate themselves from all that connectedness, fun, convenience, reach and power? Well, because it would be – and I can’t be bothered to search for a better word and anyway perhaps there isn’t one – awesome.
The great William Gibson (he coined the word ‘cyberspace’) wrote about ‘jacking into the matrix’ with an awareness, I think, that ‘jacking’ carries a druggie connotation. Jacking out of the matrix will entail plenty of cold turkey and I don’t propose it lightly or without a sense of how difficult and disruptive it would be. But then, when I was young, being difficult and disruptive was more or less what I lived for.
Jacking out of the matrix would cast one as a hero of the kind of dystopian film that proved popular in the 70s, Logan’s Run, Zardoz, Soylent Green, Fahrenheit 451 … on the run from The Corporation, with the foot soldiers of The System hard on your heels. We really are starting to live in that kind of movie, mutatis mutandis, so surely it’s time to join the Rebels, the Outliers, the Others who live beyond the Wall and read forbidden books, sing forbidden songs and think forbidden thoughts in defiance of The One.
Remembering what I was like at fifteen, I wriggle pleasurably at the thought of how it would feel in 2016 to tell a teacher that, no, I couldn’t possibly ‘e-mail’ my homework, because I don’t have e-mail:
‘I’m not on your email, miss/sir.’
‘Don’t be absurd, Stephen. Email me the essay as soon as possible.’
‘I will write it and bring it in to class tomorrow for you to mark. I’ll do that happily.’
Sudden sympathy. ‘Oh. If there’s an issue … if your parents can’t afford broadband or a computer, there are government schemes…’
‘My parents do have the band that is broad of which you speak, miss. They offered me one of the machines that understands the language of the “e-mailings” that so excites you. But I want no part of such elec-trickery.’
And so on. What larks. They couldn’t force me to have an online presence after all. These days, while there may be much talk of digital connection being a civil right, that doesn’t make it a civic duty, or a legal compulsion.
My friends and I, liberated from all digital shackles, would giggle at those sheep who flee to the playground to fire up their devices every time the break bell sounds, like addicted smokers lighting up in a theatre interval. We would watch them as they gaze, lips parted and eyes glazed over, at their Snapchats, WhatsApps, Tweets, Tumblrs, Boomerangs, Meerkats, Vines and Periscopes and how lucky we would feel to be above it all and out of it all. Out of the bullying and wheedling and neediness. Out of the invisible selling, the loveless flirting and cowardly mocking. Out of the unbearable long silences and the ceaseless screaming chatter. Out of the vengeful rivalries, the frenzied desperation and the wrenching loneliness.
We would turn on our heels and go to the park, the town library or a greasy-spoon café. One that doesn’t plead to be liked on Facebook. We would talk of God and guitar chords, poetry, fashion, sport and sex like any teenagers, but we’d do it lying on our backs looking at the sky, gigglingly whispering in reference libraries or coolly nudging the pinball machine into a replay.
I know, I know, I know. This is just maudlin, nostalgic mush. You can’t go back. But all my imagination can do when picturing a life off the grid is summon up the life I had before the grid existed, so I cannot help being retrospective. Signing off and logging out may seem to some like a move back, a fatuous attempt to disinvent the wheel, a modern equivalent of The Good Life, digging up Wikipedia and planting cabbages over it or steampunking the new to create a simulacrum of the old, but what I am talking about is a move forward for those who have never known anything but the digital world. Generation Z (it brings vomit to the gorge even to type that) must invent their own reality, not replay mine. No, this is not about the retro chic of analogue, it is about forging a new reality outside the – for want of a better word – matrix.
But first, what would motivate any young person today to pull the plug?
Well maybe they should consider this for a moment. Who most wants you to stay on the grid? The advertisers. Your boss. Human Resources. The advertisers. Your parents (irony of ironies – once they distrusted it, now they need to tag you electronically, share your Facebook photos and message you to death). The advertisers. The government. Your local authority. Your school. Advertisers.
Well, if you’re young and have an ounce of pride, doesn’t that list say it all? So fuck you, I’m Going Off The Grid.
We all know vinyl has made a comeback. That has been deprecated as a feeble, self-conscious example of retro nostalgia, or applauded as a finger jabbed up to the contemptuously poor quality of MP3 and the so-called ‘lossless’ codecs in which music is almost universally served up these days.
Vinyl reminds us that, before the days of the internet, digitisation and streaming, musicians were perfectly able to create extraordinary new sounds and write immortal songs. It’s not helpful for me to suggest that the music that came from people meeting up in garages and sheds and bedrooms was better than the music being made now, because such a claim would rightly be put down to the obvious preference we all have for the music of our youth – but no one surely can deny that it was possible to create marvellous sounds and write marvellous songs without the help of MIDI synthesisers and Protools loops.
Magazines were put together by friends who had something to say, trivial or profound, it didn’t matter. They wrote out their articles and drew their illustrations and cartoons in exercise books and on notepads and then laboriously typed and pricked them out them onto stencils that were stretched on the drums of intricate duplicating machines. The run-off pages were manually stapled or bound together into something that could call itself a magazine. Maybe two hundred were produced in one run, which might be exhibited on the shelves of a kindly local newsagent who had been persuaded to carry them ‘sale or return’.
Things that were necessary in this world were paper, pencils, typewriters, diaries, cash, dictionaries and maps.
I don’t know what would be needed if you decided to go off the grid today. I imagine the same instruments – musical and graphical, from pianos to Rotring pens – would be helpful. A lot more walking: walking to leave notes at friends’ houses, walking to post-boxes, walking to the library, walking to shops that sold goods but did not deliver, walking to rendezvous points like pubs, cafés, parks and public spaces because the only way you could all assemble and talk would be to meet face to face.
All the junk that would get cleared away! Computers, drives, printers, USB hubs, webcams, ink-cartridges, keyboards, phone chargers and miles and miles of cable. Spray it with resin and create an art installation.
You’d learn the joy of writing again … “poets love their handwriting, it’s like smelling your own farts” W. H. Auden wrote. Everything would be physical. Everything would be tactile, real and atomic. Everything would have heft and feel and touch and brush and swish and mass and heart.
I am not cursing the internet, Savonarola-like, and calling for a bonfire of its vanities, nor am I decrying it for the usual reasons – concentration span, over-simplicity of access to knowledge, softening of the brain, blah-blah-blah. I don’t really subscribe to any of that.
Swings and cycles. I sometimes subscribe to the Boethian idea (so beloved of the immortal Ignatius P. Reilly) of the Wheel of Fortune. The wheel (think London Eye) takes people round, they have their time at the top which they enjoy all the more because they have come from the bottom to get there. But they must always remember that they will soon be on their way down.
I hopped aboard the digital wheel in the late 80s as it was just rolling upwards. To change metaphorical horses midstream, we felt like frontiersmen heading west, west, west in search of gold and new land.
At first this was a text-driven, not a graphically driven world, but all that changed when in 1993 or thereabouts Mosaic arrived, the first program available for general use that could browse Tim Berners-Lee’s new invention, the worldwide web.
By the mid-nineties, and yes it really did take that long, the online services like CompuServe and America Online offered their subscribers an ‘internet ramp’ which meant you could dial into them and find a door out into the free world of the internet. This is important. The internet, as opposed to AOL and the others, was like a great city. It certainly had slums and red-light districts and places you wouldn’t want to visit after night, but the museums and art-galleries, theatres, cinemas, squares, parks, post-offices and streets were packed with excitement. AOL though, was a wipe-clean, family-friendly planned community, a digital Milton Keynes. Ample cycle-paths, parking and street-lighting – but fuck me how dreary, safe and bland. AOL hated having to provide the internet ramp out of its closed system, but it was inevitable. So they upped their game and started to sell themselves as a true internet provider. Higher they rose on the wheel.
Every movie poster or commercial for the next few years had an AOL #keyword printed on it, along with the now standard web URL. Every shop counter and every magazine was adorned with AOL membership CDs. I once gave a party in the 90s for 40 or so people and managed to ensure that I distributed about the surfaces at least 40 AOL CDs to use as wine coasters.
At the same time all the talk was of ‘portals’. Alta Vista, Yahoo, Excite, Lycos, they had their moments at the top of the wheel too. They provided your homepage, crammed with personalised tidbits and primitive widgets. Your commitment to them kept them big. They were sometimes service providers and search-engines too. The battle was on to keep you from being an individual roaming free in the big world and to keep you on the paved streets of their city.
THE WILD WEST
Two internets developed. The real internet, as I would call it, was that Wild West where anything went, shit in the streets and Bad Men abounding, no road-signs and no law, but ideas were freely exchanged, the view wasn’t ruined by advertising billboards and every moment was very very exciting.
The other internet was an environment packaged supposedly for your safe, simple navigation and convenient access. First AOL led the way here, next came the portals and after a few misfires (MySpace and Bebo) Google arrived and blew all the other portals and search-engines out of the water while Facebook established itself as the new AOL.
AOL was once so mighty that it was the senior partner in the merger with Time Warner, at the time the largest of its kind in history. Now it is so embarrassing an entity that it is no longer included in the name of the media giant that owns it. The wheel came round.
The wheel does not stop. Ever. Not for any one or any thing no matter how mighty. It didn’t stop for the real Wild West, which soon had its day, nor did it stop for its online successor. The digital Wild West may have been rough and lawless but folk were politer to strangers and knew their manners better than the ruthless, ambitious citizens who took over. The pioneer territory has now had its shitty streets and crooked boardwalks paved over. In place of saloons there are strip malls, fun fairs and multiplexes. The telegraph and train killed the stage coach and the pony express. The wheel turned.
And Facebook will be dust one day. Hard to imagine perhaps but obviously and happily true. ‘Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.’
For now, Facebook is of course all powerful and finds itself busy eating the internet (thereby preparing its own extinction) and of course parents are on it. That’s how crap it is.
I and millions of other early ‘netizens’ as we embarrassingly called ourselves, joined an online world that seemed to offer an alternative human space, to welcome in a friendly way (the word netiquette was used) all kinds of people with all kinds of views. We were outside the world of power and control. Politicians, advertisers, broadcasters, media moguls, corporates and journalists had absolutely zero understanding of the net and zero belief that it mattered. So we felt like an alternative culture; we were outsiders.
Those very politicians, advertisers, media moguls, corporates and journalists who thought the internet a passing fad have moved in and grabbed the land. They have all the reach, scope, power and ‘social bandwidth’ there is. Everyone else is squeezed out — given little hutches, plastic megaphones and a pretence of autonomy and connectivity. No wonder so many have become so rude, resentful, threatening and unkind.
LOG OFF, JACK OUT, POWER DOWN
The radical alternative now must be to jack out of the matrix, to go off the grid.
If this blog is read by 10,000 people (which will be a lot fewer, off course, than might have read it if I had stayed on Twitter) well, fine. Strangely, if I printed it samizdat style, by way of an old-fashioned Gestetner duplicator and it was read as a physical pamphlet by only 100 people, I would feel that it had connected far more and with far greater purpose and meaning. It is not about the numbers. It is never about the numbers. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.
I live in a world without Facebook, and now without Twitter. I manage to survive too without Kiki, Snapchat, Viber, Telegram, Signal and the rest of them. I haven’t yet learned to cope without iMessage and SMS. I haven’t yet turned my back on email and the Cloud. I haven’t yet jacked out of the matrix and gone off the grid. Maybe I will pluck up the courage.
After you …