The Digital Buffet

Posted on: January 3rd, 2013 by robert No Comments

This pile of books beside my bed has gradually become a tower of literary guilt.

The act of entering a book shop or charity store without purchasing yet another book is one I've yet to successfully master. A vestigial symptom of my obsessive compulsive disorder perhaps, an unerring urge to be cultured and well-read, or is it just greed? Either way, the problem is they never get read. Or rather, they get read at such a pace that another 20 have been bought by the time I finish a chapter of just one. To read them all before old age it seems would be an impossibly epic assignment to complete.

There's quite an eclectic mix in that neglected bed-side behemoth. There's Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great; Alain Du Botton's Status Anxiety; Love's Executioner by Irvin D Yalom; Julian Barnes' Pulse, The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, and the odd penguin classic like Graham Greene's End of the Affair, Jean Rhys' Leaving Mr Mackenzie – all of which remain untouched, merely gathering dust and decorated with cobwebs (probably).

They watch with their beady eye as I lay in bed rapaciously clutching at my iPad and contemplating one more mind-numbing video on youtube before lights out. I suppose it's a salutary reminder to the extent in which the pull of technology has had on all our lives and the astonishing lack of spare time it has created.

The unrelenting stimulation of modern life makes downtime with a book even more important yet more difficult to schedule as we drown in the surfeit of claims on our attention and time. Looking at all the colourful spines in my literary leviathan, and estimating how long it would take to read them all, considering the paucity of available hours in a day, I conclude that I'd more than likely have to be sent to prison, where I could also squeeze in some gym time too, or take a course. That is when I'm avoiding getting buggered in the showers.

I could of course read faster. A friend of mine will often take up to 5 books on a week's holiday and polish them all off before the flight home. He admonishes me when I suggest this amounts to some expert skimming. If I'm to read a book, I'll say, I want to absorb the information as best I can, not simply get the gist. President Theodore Roosevelt allegedly finished up to 3 books a day, advising his son: “The wise thing to do is simply skip the bosh and twaddle and vulgarity and untruth, and get the benefit out of the rest.” Still, I can't help but think this is an exercise more akin to data processing than actual enjoyment, or learning.

Technology has also seen the emergence of the equivalent of the bedside pile of unread books. It's not unusual to have a whole list of unread online links to “must-read” articles, videos, unwatched programmes on iplayer or films on netflix, box sets still in their cellophane, not to mention the endless games on iPhones and a whole galaxy of magazines on Zinio to apply our attention to, and the inevitable obligation to investigate associated 'stuff', lest we feel we're missing out on what others are so voraciously consuming and raving about.

The allure of the internet makes obsessives of us all, as it throws options and cultural temptations at us, telling us what we ought to be reading, watching and doing with the scant time we have. Not only do we all now suffer from time anxiety, but the abundance in choice of technology has left a lamentable void for more important activities; more social, and cultural past-times, as we float off into a sea of options.

Instead, we've become zombies, reaching out for our phones upon waking each morning, and sending that final email, text or Facebook message before sleep at night. We've become a nation of web addicts, wandering the streets like somnambulists, our heads bowed in a religious fervour as if at church but merely only staring intently at the latest Facebook update, text or tweet, vicariously living through other people's lives. Scratch the surface and these lives aren't that agreeable in any case. It's easy to create the illusion that we are having an 'amazing' life on a social media site. But if our existence is that marvellous, would we really be recording the minutia of every moment of it on Facebook for the benefit of 300 people we rarely see anyway, if we've met them at all?

I noticed recently on Facebook one of my previous conversations, and was oddly bemused to see I'd been having it with myself, before realising a friend had deactivated her account, which had removed her presence there completely. “To be honest Rob, I'd had enough of it wasting my time” she told me. “I'd find myself on it at times of stress and boredom when I could be doing something more useful. I was sick of living in a world where everyone seems to seek validation from the number of likes they get for a photograph or comment. Pity the poor sap who actually says something interesting yet seldom gets one thumbs up. They must feel their existence is completely meaningless.”

“I concur” I say embarrassedly, whilst updating my legion of voiceless 'friends' with the fact I'm having a Tesco Value steak and kidney pie for my tea.

I told her about my growing pile of books, which I directly blamed on my inclination to wallow in the realm of technology. The internet, she responded, has brought about a physiological change in our brains which prevents us from concentrating on anything for too long. She'd read about it apparently– online. Frighteningly, this piece of research didn't surprise me. Ours is a population with short attention spans, constantly fed snippets of this and that, but nothing complete or, in the end, worthwhile. I can't even remember a film I've watched at home, without resisting the urge to look at my ipad, iphone or laptop at least five times before the end credits roll.

It makes one strangely nostalgic for the boredom for ones youth. When one was forced to go out and get proper stimulation to occupy their time; see friends, learn a new instrument, play sport, or heaven forbid read a book. Now our brains grasp to keep up, owing to limitless choice and limited time.

In his book Retromania, music critic Simon Reynolds said: “Life itself is a scarcity economy. You only have so much time and energy.” And its true. Which is why I'm going to make a concerted effort from now to reduce my online time. Because frankly, no one but me cares if I've read that latest George Monbiot column, or seen the latest Homeland episode, finished the Mad Men box set or Richard Dawkins' new polemic on iplayer before it expires, or downloaded the updated version of the Words Free app, or tweeted my latest gripe with the world, or seen the Maximuscle protein-a-thon campaign video, or discovered what my cousin's wife's sister's mother-in-law has had for her tea. And actually, I don't even care. It certainly doesn't make me a better person.

I just want fun now. And proper stimulation. In the real world. Without the interruption of the cyber pull. And to be fully there in an uninterrupted conversation with someone without the urge to peek at a phone. How hard can it be to achieve fun these days away from a world of screens? Fun, as we know, by way of play, social interaction or activity, is necessary as it offers biochemical benefits in the form of endorphins released into the bloodstream, while also providing a healthy cognitive balance to the excessive mental strain and endless stimulation thrust upon us in the digital age.

Well, it's time to piss all over the digital smorgasboard, which serves no real purpose other than to add to the fatigue of everyday life, makes us angry, increases our feelings of irrelevance, restricts the chance for real communication and leaves a soulless void. We need to get back to that which brings real meaningful fulfilment, not just something that exists in some parallel cyber universe. I'm going to ensure the pile of books diminishes, I'll go out and see friends more and leave my phone at home. And if that doesn't ameliorate the cyber-induced anger, then hell to it, I might even take up boxing.