Disconnect… While You Still Can

I’m going to tell you a story. A social networking story, to be precise. It’s not the most baffling or adventurous of tales. In fact, to most of us, it won’t be anything more than a detailed morning routine – but to a readership of the previous century, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in the Sci-Fi/Horror section of the library, if not in the Tragedy aisle.

I woke up this morning and one of the first things I did was to reach for my iPad and check Facebook. A couple of likes and comments from friends and friends-of-friends. I had a look to see who these were, how they found the picture I’d posted. Ah, so you’re a mutual friend of X who I met on my travels. In ten seconds I won’t even remember your name.

I shift over to Instagram. I seem to have nabbed five more likes on one of my rarely-seen selfies last night, bringing the total up to forty. Twenty-seven of them are students I taught last year and one of them is that girl I thought was cute, though I never told her so. For some reason that counts for something.

My friends list seems to have gone down by one. Who could that be, I wonder? I hazard a guess that it’s that one girl in the choir I didn’t feature – or tag, by proxy – in my drawing because I didn’t speak to her all that often. My guess is right on the money. That’s reason enough to be unFriended – and a fair point. If I don’t know you so well, and therefore don’t really want to feature you in a drawing of all of the people who I consider my nearest and dearest, why are we friends on Facebook in the first place?

Even so, I confess to feeling both a little guilty, and a little galled.

I have breakfast, brush my teeth and go outside. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day and the cat is rolling around on the paving slabs. I love my cat, and it looks particularly ridiculous right now, its black coat covered in dust like fine spores. This would make for a great post, I think. I’ll go and get my iPad.

And then I stop. What the hell is wrong with me?

It’s this need to justify everything we do or see. This ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ mentality. Almost every one of us seems to be under its spell, and the younger you are, the stronger its pull. Life revolves around what was done and said over Facebook last night, instead of what took place in the real world. News has lost its value: maybe you heard about the anniversary of 9/11 on Twitter, or saw it on Buzzfeed, or it was in a post that an acquaintance shared at nine forty seven last night. You saw it, your scrolled past it, and somewhere you took it in, though you didn’t really register it. If it does come up in conversation, of course, you were in the know: ‘I saw it on my wall…’

We’re a sick nation. If you haven’t noticed yet, open your eyes. This isn’t humanity. This is a fourteen-year old psychosis permanently inflicted upon us through the glow of a small screen. It gnaws at our minds and roots itself in our routine. Most of the time you won’t even think about it. It’s just something you do, like the processed meat you eat and the coltan-charged phone you use, an essential part of your day that you don’t really need to think too much about. I challenge anybody to tell me in full what news they learned from their last browse of the social network.

I was lucky enough this year to be – however briefly – in the strange position of being pretty much as out of contact as it’s possible to be in twenty first century Europe. For some time I had a phone with no data in a house with no wireless in a village with no Internet café. Because of this, I took in the news like never before. And because of that, the Paris attacks shocked me to the core like nothing ever has. The night of the attack, I was watching a film on my own, none the wiser. A full twenty four hours later, after I’d traveled to a neighboring city to do a little sightseeing, I saw the whole thing on the morning news as I took a Cola Cao in the hostel bar. And it shocked me stiff. News had never been so alarming. It was the first I’d heard of it, and it hurt.

Not only that, but those internet-free months were probably the happiest of my year. When I finally worked out how to activate my data allowance (which, I suppose, I had squandered thus far), the remaining months rolled out in a sequence of worrying over eking out my one gigabyte of data expenditure to last the month. Another routine, another shackle, another link in the chain. The network has us by the balls.

I’m worried for my generation. We are, perhaps, the last to have grown up in the pre-Facebook world, though it was already starting to bleed through into our childhood as we hit our mid teens. Maybe wording this all in a blog post defeats the point, or maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps you have to fight fire with fire. A hundred years ago you’d have had to write a tale like this by hand and post it all over town, on real walls – and would anybody have paid it any more attention then, I wonder? Or is it, in the end, only in human nature to scroll?

I’m breaking free whilst I still have the power to do so. In this hyper-connected world, it can seem not only difficult but extremely inconvenient to cut yourself off from the world by switching off your network stations. But when you think about it, is it? Do you need to know what those eight hundred-odd friends of yours are doing every day? Is that normal? Those few who you do consider your friends, if they are worthy of the title, would surely find you by other means if they needed you and begrudge you little for the effort. That’s what real friendship is – or rather, what it should be.

It’s already been proposed that addiction to social media is having long-term effects on the mental stability of the next generation, as well as the present. We can’t know for sure, but I don’t want to wait to find out. I miss the freedom of the old world, when Google was in its infancy and the idea of a ‘social network’ was still a twinkle in the eye of the Internet.

Take a look at the twelve-year old girl posting duckface/sparrowface/(insert generic bird name here)face selfies on Instagram and tell me that’s normal. Really, tell it to my face. And it’ll have to be to my face, of course. Because as of tonight, I’m making a break for it. If that’s the lesson this grand artwork has taught me over the two and a half years I’ve been working on it, it was well worth both the time and the effort.

I’m getting out whilst I still can. Will you? BB x

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