The skin of anxiety
On a winter’s afternoon late in 1994, I sat with two friends in the attic bedroom of an old terraced house we were renting together on French’s Quay in Cork and we listened, rapt, to the gurgle and hiss of a dial-up Internet connection inside a gigantic desktop computer. It sounded like a beast trying to take form in there, and we smiled excitedly through the brownish fug of dope smoke – we were using the attic room also to grow cannabis plants under lamps mounted in the eaves. Memory perhaps elaborates the picture but I seem to remember that it took miles of cables, doorstoppers of computer manuals and weeks of hair-pulling complication to bring us to this moment. The connection hissed more loudly and sputtered hard, and we held our breaths as the great network that we knew was out there tried to snag its digital hooks on the virgin nodes of Cork city, but it failed, and the room went silent, and we turned off the computer and got on with our lives.
Which, in 1994, largely involved slithering bug-eyed around the walls of Sir Henry’s nightclub until the small hours, sleeping till mid afternoon, and then trying to lure passing college girls into the house with promises of free dope, playtime with a cute black rabbit called Fluppsie we had bought in a pet store on North Main Street, and (we lied) access to ‘the Web’.
I was twenty-five years old and at this time operating fitfully, and at a very stoned level, as a freelance reviewer, writing up notices of gigs and plays for music magazines and newspapers. I would bash out my judgements on a Singer electric typewriter perched on a wardrobe laid on its side to function as a desk. Sentences of Faulknerian complexity would be employed to tear strips off a Frank and Walters show at Nancy Blake’s, or the latest Corcadorca offering at the Triskel. The Singer, quite snazzily, had an eraser function. I would go to a stationery store off Washington Street to replace the white-out ribbon; Tipp-Ex was history, and the eraser was essential for the obsessive redrafting of my killer intros. I recall a sub-editor at the Irish Times asking whether a notice on some Corkonian indie act at the Phoenix Bar really merited an opening sentence that came in at something like 136 words. I would carry the typed pages as though they were tablets of stone across the river from French’s Quay, past the hoppy belching of the Beamish plant, to what was then Jury’s Hotel, on Western Road, where the receptionist would fax them through to Dublin for a pound the first page and fifty pence thereafter.
Sometime towards the end of that winter, just before we all moved to London, we did finally get the Internet connected, at least to some primeval degree. I do not remember exactly what I saw when I gazed for the first time into that fateful portal, or what I expected to see, but I do recall that the first thing we did on the Internet was look for a recipe for Ecstasy.
In the early autumn of 2012, I tend to wake a little before eight in the morning, and for a moment or two I listen to what the weather is doing outside our house in south county Sligo; on almost three hundred days of the year it is raining, and I curse my fate. I then endure a moment of intense moral struggle. I know that I am going to get up soon and spend the morning attempting to write fiction, as Destiny says I must, and I know the last thing I should do now, because it will shatter my concentration before I even begin, is go online. But of course I reach to the bedside table and grasp the iPhone. My wife tends to be awake a little before me, and she will already be tappety-tapping at her iPhone, even as I listen to the counterpoint of the rain’s snare-drum beat outside, and so my insinuation into the online world has begun even before I’m truly awake.
I check my Gmail. I read bits of the papers. I Google myself – and yes, shame reddens my cheek as I type that phrase. I would almost rather admit to lying in bed, mornings, and abusing myself, but my suspicion is that almost all writers, young and old, now perform Google and Twitter searches for references to themselves several dozen times a day. I flutter about from site to site. I may well (as in, I do) have a look to see how I’m getting on in terms of Amazon sales, so I’ll visit the UK, American and Canadian versions. I have been even known to visit the Japanese version, because someone (a worried Murakami?) bought a book of my stories out there once. I go back to Gmail and refresh my inbox to see if anything has come through in the five minutes since I last checked, though it’s not yet eight in morning, but maybe somebody I know is up late in San Francisco and wants to make me fatally rich and world-renowned and has chosen just now to tell me about it; but I have no new messages (0) and another little knife is twisted in my nervous gut. I am not yet standing or even fully conscious but already I am in that impatient, flitty, online mode: I bound about like one of those neurotic petrol-sniffer hares you’ll see at the Dublin Airport car park. I stay nowhere longer than a minute or two, if that. I’ll start to read a piece, but two paragraphs in I’ll go yeah, right, blah-de-blah, and move on. You could not by force of will design a state of mind more unsuitable for getting up and attempting to make Literature, but that, hilariously, is what I get up and try to do.
Or after a fashion, anyway. Lately, I note, most of the essays and stories I write tend to be broken up into very short, numbered sections, because I can no longer replicate on the page the impression or sensation of consecutive, concentrated thought, because I don’t really do that anymore.
Away with us to a medieval scene – the town of Birr, County Offaly, as it was in the drear winter of 1988 – and an initiation ritual:
I stood in an annexe to a newspaper office that was in fact a shed, with a galvanized tin roof, the place warmed only by a Superser with a bowl of water in front of it to absorb the gas fumes, and a lady with a strong Midlands accent stood before me and said, slowly and deliberately –
‘This … is … a mouse.’
She displayed the little attachment that trailed from a squat, square, green-screened Macintosh computer, and smiled encouragingly – I was allowed to have a go. I leaned down to the desk and took the mouse in my trembling hand. Worms of concentration wriggled across my brow as I tried to make the arrowed cursor on the screen move in response to my manipulation, but I was all elbows and knuckles, and the cursor skittered and sprang.
‘Easy now,’ she said. ‘You’ll get the hang of it soon enough.’
And within no more than a few hours, I really did have the knack of it, and felt confidently immersed in the world of The New Technology, as it was then known in the offices of local newspapers.
I was nineteen, and had just dropped out of college to take up a position as a cub reporter on a new weekly paper starting up in Limerick city. A job in Limerick in the late ‘80s was news in itself, and my college advisors had bid me haste as they urged me to quit campus and go for it. Soon my sensibilities would be forged (i.e. scarred for life) in the furnace that was the press pit of Limerick District Court, but it was the era when hot type, scalpels and gum were giving way to desktop publishing, and my first task was to spend a week in Birr, on a sister paper, being schooled in the mysteries of the Macintosh. I was put up in a surprisingly plush and nearly deserted hotel on the main street. I spent the winter evenings drinking to excess with members of the Midlands press fraternity. They were mostly of the generation excited into journalism by the Watergate scandal; but having found themselves writing about the pothole situation in Tullamore, they dulled the pain of anti-climax with booze. I recall one night returning to the hotel, having crossed the main street on all fours, and falling to a desperate sleep and its sour, scary dreams of green screens, jittering type, electric mice.
How many times a day do I check my email? This is going to be very embarrassing.
Frequently now, you will hear people joking about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They’ll say that they are ‘borderline OCD’. Well, I am not borderline OCD. I am deep in-country, upriver and entrenched, the Colonel Kurtz of OCD-land. I once had a work room, in a flat in Clontarf, with a new beige carpet on which little hairballs would mysteriously gather overnight. Before I could begin work each morning, it became ‘a thing’ that I had to crawl around the floor and pick up every last one of the hairballs. And count them. So that’s my kind of level.
Last year, I spoke with two other Irish writers after a reading in Paris and I asked them how many times a day, at an honest estimate, they checked their email. One of them, who is younger than me and much more connected, totted it up and blushed and said – ‘Maybe … 80?’ The other, older than me and I would have thought much less connected, shook her head, and scoffed, and said – ‘Oh, at least … 120? Or okay, maybe … 130?’
Me? I don’t turn the Internet off while I’m writing, and I don’t have that software that blocks it, so I’ll check at least once every five minutes during the working morning. So that’s probably about 50 checks by lunchtime. In the afternoons, I gad about the Sligo hills, often on my bike, but that doesn’t stop me from fishing the iPhone out, though granted the checking will be at the more relaxed pace of about a half-dozen times an hour. So we’re heading towards 90 checks or so by teatime. In the evenings, I tend to check my mail quite a lot, because the US is about its working day, and you never know what might come in from over there. So we’re back up to maybe ten checks an hour. By bedtime, I’ve checked my Gmail I would think at least 150 times, and this may be a conservative count. This section of the piece, for example, has so far taken me about fifteen minutes to write and I have so far checked my mail four times. Or possibly five.
But let’s say it’s 150 times a day. On at least 140 of these occasions, my inbox will tell me that I have no new messages (0). That’s 140 tiny ego deaths I suffer a day. The effect of these is minuscule individually, but significant cumulatively. Of the ten or so mails I get a day, two or three will be spam offering me new tits, or a reliable erection, or investment opportunities in Lagos, and the rest will be dull and routine. I might get one or two mails a month of the type that I’m actually after – these are the emails that tell me I’m a wonderful writer of stories or scripts or whatever and there’s money on the way. Each of these mails turns me into a more monstrous egomaniac – each to a tiny degree, maybe, but the effect, again, is cumulative.
Autumn 2003 – the era of the digital quickening, and I am living in a basement flat in the New Town of Edinburgh. My girlfriend is doing her PhD at the university and I am attempting without landmark success to revivify the short-story form. Most evenings, as dusk trails in from the Firth of Forth, carrying on its skirts a near-Baltic chill, I go for a walk around the elegant New Town streets. Edinburgh has always had a great culture of apartment dwelling: it’s a city that’s properly lived in, that doesn’t clear out after dark, and as I walk along I can see down into the basement flats of the Georgian manses. As it is the custom here for the high sash windows to be left uncurtained, all the domestic scenes are lit and presented to the observer in a sequence of unfolding tableaux. I have lately been flabbergasted by a report in a newspaper that suggests that people are now spending approximately as much time online as they spend watching television. But the evidence of this is clearly presented in the basement flats in the autumn of 2003. The most typical scene displays a young couple. She is on the couch, watching TV; he is at a slight remove, perhaps in an armchair, or at a dining table, and is staring into a biggish laptop computer, most likely a Dell.
I’m back in Edinburgh frequently, maybe a couple of times a year, and by habit I retrace of an evening my New Town walks, and I look down into the basement apartments, and the TVs have long since been switched off, or have disappeared altogether, and both the he and the she have perched on their thighs the laptop (likely an Apple) or the smartphone (ditto).
Although I am online all of my waking hours, I am considered among friends and acquaintances to be an amusingly 1.0 kind of fellow, with throwback tendencies and Luddite markings. I am not on Facebook. I am not on Twitter. I do not have a website, or a blog. I steer clear of iTunes, having wound up there once a bit pissed and buying about fifty quid’s worth of Human League songs. I do not maintain a Tumblr, or curate a Flickr account, and I am unsure what words to apply to such things, because I do not know exactly what they are, or what they do. I check email, I read the papers, and I busy about looking at … stuff. I occasionally weep gladly in the small hours having fallen into a YouTube hole of the early ’80s synthesizer acts I grew up with, or the deep house tunes from Chicago and Detroit we used to slither around Sir Henry’s to in the early ’90s. I have had an iPhone for almost a year and have downloaded no apps. A little flush of triumph comes to my cheek if I manage to email someone a photo, or paste a link into the body of a mail – this, after eighteen years of Internet activity, is the level of it. I have never looked at porn on the Internet, not having the need, as my mind already projects terrifying sequences of phantasmagorical sex images at all conscious hours of day and night. I have never played games online, or arranged dates, or (yet) sought to locate dogging venues in the vicinity of the south county Sligo swamplands. I have lately bought turf online, but I do very little of the stuff you’re supposed to do. Even so, I become extremely twitchy if force of circumstance keeps me away from the Internet. My thoughts will stream then through the classic addict ruts – when can I next get a connection, where can I find it, and how long will it take me to get there?
Let’s posit two extreme and contrary arguments, both of which I believe to be entirely true –
1. Our complete immersion in the online world is largely benevolent. Loneliness has been vanquished by social media. Intense connectivity breeds a freshness of thinking – we open ourselves to new influences, we make brilliant new friends, we are exposed to the vast pools of human talent. We have immediate access to great film, music, and literature, and to the artists behind the works. Education, healthcare, in fact every area of civic governance can potentially be streamlined and made better, and these things are already happening in measurable ways. Rebellious political will can express itself with a furious immediacy. The opaque screen that covered the workings of officialdom has been shattered. Sexual emancipation is complete and all of our tastes and peccadillos are revealed to be broadly democratic and can be satisfied at a click. Love is all around.
2. Our complete immersion in the online world is largely malevolent. The leprous spread of social media does not represent a new connectivity or openness but merely emphasizes (and reinforces) the epidemic levels of social isolation in our post-industrial world. Our constant online presence breeds a new timidity, a herd thinking, in which we are afraid to stand apart from the crowd. Meek consensus quickly comes to dominate every conversation; perhaps the most common phrase on Twitter is ‘Agreed!’. Filmmakers, writers and musicians are being economically raped by the expectation that if something is online, it must be free, with the consequence that, artistically, we have entered the era of the amateur and the part-timer. Our concentrational abilities have been shattered and they will never recover – the people’s smartphones can be taken only from their cold, dead hands. There is no longer any real learning. The Internet has made us all so very prickly and paranoid – how long can someone take to respond to an email? And why, coz they’re too busy fucking tweeting? Also, perverts are everywhere, and they want to masturbate all over us.
I never thought I’d be nostalgic for Internet cafes, though always those places had about them the tang of nostalgia anyway: they emerged just as the great waves of westward and northern migration swept over Europe in the mid to late ‘90s, and always they were filled with the homesick voices that whispered urgently on cut-rate phone lines in booths around the edges of the cafe – the voices nostalgic for Chad, or Ukraine – and the rest of us tappety-tapped at the metered screens as we checked our Hotmail accounts, and our Friends Reunited, our Bebo, our LiveJournal, as we Yahooed ourselves, and sipped coffee from a percolator jug that tasted like it was brewed from crotch sweat and Bisto cubes.
I have hauled myself to Spain every winter for the last twelve years or so: by late January, I can simply take no more of Ireland, and I run screaming from it for as many weeks or months as I can afford. By the early ’00s, my desperation to locate an Internet cafe as soon as I arrived in a Spanish city had become all the more intense and neurotic: I would throw my bags into the pension or rented flat, and immediately dash out to scour the backstreets of Cordoba, or Malaga, or Cadiz until I found the @ symbol on the frontage, and then I could breathe easier again.
I would slink in and out of the cafes three or four times a day, and often late on – those magic hours, with our faces lit by the glow of the screens, as the nights of the Spanish cities passed by outside, obliviously, and when I think of my old trips now I think not of the great cathedrals, or the bustling alley life of the barrios, or the sweet wines, or the fried fish, or the beautiful people; I think of the Internet cafes.
Visiting Limerick again, in the summer of ’04 or ’05, it seemed that half of my old friends were working at the Dell plant in Raheen. It was the high water mark of demand, they couldn’t ship the things fast enough, and they simply couldn’t get enough workers. Among the more idle types in Limerick, there was dark talk of ‘the Dell bus’ – it would come through the estates at the crack of dawn, and ‘the Dell people’ would jump off the bus and knock on windows and doors and try to yank innocent citizens out of their beds and onto the factory line.
I mailed my old housemates, Seamus and Gene, from the days on French’s Quay in Cork. They were far more tech-savvy than I, and both ended up working at digital stuff, and so I asked them for their memories of our first Internet connection, which would no doubt be more precise than mine.
Apparently, we used to look mainly at alt-dot newsgroups, and most likely those that focused on cannabis cultivation in damp climates. The newsgroups had a very basic interface – dull greyish blocks of rolling textlines. The computer was a Gateway 200 PC, specifically a 486ss33 with 2MB ram and a 100MB hard drive. The modem, bought in from Holland, ran at 14k per second, too fast for Telecom Éireann’s network, which ran at 9.6k per second – this was the snag that fucked up our access for most of the winter. Our primitive connection was eventually made by hitching onto some local lady’s network in Cork. We did not have a browser as it would be recognized now but a green-screen app through which you could perform basic hypertext linking. Seamus went to the Telecom Éireann office on the South Mall and asked about setting up an ISP and he was told the best thing he could do was emigrate, which he promptly did. I allegedly threw the black rabbit, Fluppsie, down the stairs one morning when I woke up with it sitting on my pillow – I do not recall this, and deny it. We apparently did find the recipe for Ecstasy, but the next problem was locating the ingredients.
The scene, late at night, in County Sligo –
By the side of the bed there are, typically, between twenty and thirty books. Also, there are copies of magazines and literary journals. I am reading none of these. I am lying in the bed tapping at my iPhone. It is a rare occurrence for me now to finish a book. I search for reasons to stop reading rather than for reasons to go on. I flit and hop from book to book in precisely the way my brain has been trained to flit and hop from site to site – I have been neurologically rewired.
Also, a dark discovery: if contemporary books have some tiny hope of being read all the way through, I believe that many of the classics have none at all – if you’ve been online all day, their pace just seems altogether glacial now; they can seem kind of ridiculous. Mortified by one of those enormous blindspots in my reading, I had a go last winter at Madame Bovary, and it took me three weeks to get through about sixty pages of the horrible thing before I flung it across the room. It just wouldn’t move in the way I expect a narrative to move now. I fear that I will never be able to read such books again, and I fear I am not alone in this, that I am typical of the current multitude, and the coming multitudes will be worse again – they won’t even try to read such books – and the classics will fade away, and disappear.
But weirdly –
Towards the end of writing this piece, I visited friends who live in the dusty, dry, lizard-coloured hills south of Athens. They do not have an Internet connection and I decided against the expense of allowing my iPhone to roam. So I spent just over four days entirely offline, which I believe is as long as I’ve been offline in more than a decade. And, you know, it wasn’t so bad. In fact, Internet addiction turns out to be very similar to cannabis addiction. For the first day or two without, you are a little bit irked, and vaguely impatient, and susceptible to a kind of why-bother-with-anything ennui, but there is no physical withdrawal; there are no sweats, and there is no shaking. And after a while, you pretty much forget about it, and you just get on with your life.
I now suspect that Internet use might in fact have quite a lot in common with cannabis use. The occasional blast is fine, and can even be revelatory. But too much of it makes you a bit touchy and stupid, and you really shouldn’t be doing it all day every day, and you really, really don’t need to wake ‘n’ bake.
Is it conceivable that a more casual approach might even become the norm? A few months ago, I spoke to some art students, and we talked about the Internet and its effects. It appears that the cool thing now for arty kids in their early twenties is to go offline. They spoke happily of closing their Facebook accounts and giving up Twitter. The Internet, they suggested, has become a bit of a Dad thing. They seemed to me to be much less excited about it than my own generation is. It was as boring to them as television was to me when I was in my twenties – I just wasn’t arsed about it; it was what middle-aged people did – and I wonder now if the coming multitudes might not be so bad after all.
What if it’s a skin of anxiety that’s pulled tautly across the entire surface of the world, over all the hills and undulations, and what if it has changed everything, forever, and for the worse, and what if we can never, ever escape from it?
To read the rest of Dublin Review 49, you may purchase the issue here.