Lately I’ve found myself attempting to withdraw from the digital world. This is part of a bigger effort to excuse myself from the modern world as a whole, and embark on some kind of timeless existence subsisting on wine and raw meat and entertaining myself by reading only the words I can scratch into the kitchen linoleum with my own ragged fingernails. But all in good time. Although I would consider my usage moderate, I spend some time every day staring at a phone screen. I use it to wake me up in the mornings, and often, via the shipping forecast on the BBC radio app, to lull me to sleep at night. It handles my banking, times and photographs my dinner, plays my music, tells me the weather so I don’t have to thrust my big head out the window… In short, it has me right where it wants me.
It’s hard to blame the device– it insinuates itself into my daily life so dispassionately. It hasn’t jumped into my hands, or started yelling out my friends’ Facebook statuses. It’s just been sitting there quietly, secure in the knowledge that at any moment, maybe while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, I’ll pick it up and check in. Just for a second. Maybe I’ll just take it to the couch for a minute.
But having taken the place of so many tangible tactile experiences, that flat mobile face is staring into my own much more than I’d like, and I realise it leaves me feeling edgy and irritable; dull with a thickness behind the eyes. I become aware of my lungs working at half capacity. Mouth breathing is surely imminent.
A year ago today I was sitting in a primo seat at Carnegie Hall, listening to the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. It was one of the last experiences of communal spiritual uplift I engaged in, and unknowingly, I was almost certainly helping shut it down. Soundwaves from scores of musicians concentrating feverishly, beauty gushing from the stage to swirl and roll around the room, the sound of each violin reaching out like a vine to wrap itself around my head and climb inside my ear to burst into flower in my ugly grey brain. While Beethoven expanded my mind, lifting it on gentle clouds and whizzing it around the hall’s scalloped ceiling, a nasty grubby little virus was making itself at home in my body, having its own little party down there, confident in its increasing strength. Spiritual rejoicing? Shared celebration of beauty and the human soul? To hell with these highbrow elitist pursuits! Almighty Covid casts thee down to the couch to binge watch Friends for all eternity! I woke up next morning sicker than I’d ever been- feverish, short of breath, and unable to move. I might have been one of those super spreaders! We don’t all wear capes…
Shortly after this, the world moved inside, separated from one another, and with no viable alternative, replaced human interaction and tangible experience with digital facsimiles.
I don’t know if there’s really anything wrong with social media, but for me scrolling is deadening but so tempting, a bathtub of warm goo for 99.9% of my brain to slip into emitting only the occasional fart bubble of jealousy or anger. The digital experience is so untaxing, so cleverly designed to dull the critical parts of the mind that a quick glance at Instagram and suddenly your bodily functions have shut down, you stopped breathing fifteen minutes ago and some kind of Kardashian has taken up residence in your hippocampus. Books and pianos don’t do this, they feed my lazy brain, making it stronger without it even knowing. Somehow bodies and faces on a screen, digitised instruments, synthesised food flavours are tricking our brains into thinking they’re experiencing something real.
Of course sometimes I’m jolted out of my customary stupor by the realisation that nothing is real, and everything we think we experience is a manipulated imitation but fortunately I haven’t managed to cling onto that wispy thought long enough to post a blog about it…
I can’t blame technology entirely for my mental stultification. It doesn’t help that mid February is the grimmest time of year around here. The lead sky reflecting in the piles of grimy snow, the sludgy daily trudge to the supermarket where the harsh neon competes with the inane saccharine pop music to subdue any remaining spark, all leads to a general sodden feeling about the brainpan. Stripping naked and making snow angels while chewing Sichuan peppercorns is a quick way to enliven the system, but do it in the backyard, not the front. There are also gentler ways to dig oneself out of the mire.
Mornings I’m experimenting with an actual alarm clock to hoist me from the depths, its explosive peal tearing a jagged gash through the atmosphere, briefly stopping my heart as I gasp to the surface. It’s a traumatic way to start a day, but for now the jangle of actual metal bells is preferable to the insidious synthesised ocean sounds from my phone.
Evenings the crackle and pop of Count Basie on vinyl echoes the chillies jumping around in the skillet, the hot little buggers releasing burning fumes that invade the sinuses and clear a wide path for the ensuing sneeze. Horns fill the room, and Walter Page’s bass pulse toys playfully with my own in a way that an mp3 through a portable speaker won’t match.
And tonight the neighbours are coming around, the TV’s staying off, and we’re going to stage a living room production of my favourite episode of Friends (it was so hard to choose!) According to the script, this is the one where Rachel wraps some fish in newspaper, so I have to go and print out the finance pages from my New York Times app.
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