Russell Taylor: In praise of going offline

A few weeks ago, I was at a friend’s wedding in the Trough of Bowland, in Lancashire. It’s a place of rare beauty: a broad valley of field and forest, set between dramatic hills, without a wind turbine to be seen, nor a phone signal to be had. Being old enough to recall life before mobile phones and the Internet, I was not overly distressed at being rendered incommunicado. On the contrary, I found the absence of calls, texts and emails rather relaxing. It made the sense of isolation and of being somewhere ancient and unspoilt all the greater. It reminded me of a time, not that long ago, when if you were out and about, you were uncontactable. And as incredible as it might seem today, that wasn’t necessarily considered a bad thing.

The younger wedding guests were less phlegmatic about this state of affairs. From their despairing reaction, you’d have thought they were stranded aboard Apollo 13, instead of being temporarily cut-off from the outside world. Admittedly, bored kids and rural idylls don’t always go together. I spent the best part of a childhood holiday in Wales hunched over a Galaxian arcade machine, instead of joining my family in the sunshine, so I understand the antisocial urge. But the wedding guests in question were not stroppy adolescents. Most were twenty- or thirty-somethings, whining like grounded teenagers because they had been disconnected from their online existence. They appeared to have a good time nonetheless, but spoke of getting their snaps and opinions on Facebook at the earliest opportunity, as if the wedding won’t really have happened until they had done so.

To those who self-publicise on social media, life is something that happens ‘out there’ rather than right here. It’s the product of the words and pictures that tell us what they’ve done and who they are. This is life as a photo opportunity: a narcissistic, voyeuristic point-scoring exercise, where events are not so much enjoyed as collected as anecdotes for a rolling autobiography that no one asked to be published.

“So what?” you might ask. Idiots will always be with us and will express their idiocy through any means available to them. As for the technology, every new medium has been accused of making us stupider, shallower or more atomised at some point. Even the Internet has come under fire, despite its undoubted value as an aid to commerce, communication and learning, and in helping us find the name of that guy who was in that thing.

Where social media differs from telephone, radio or television is in turning its users into broadcasters. This makes it useful as a business tool and as a gazette for news of interest to family and loved ones; but it also enables bores and exhibitionists to publish their every passing thought. This self-absorbed waffling does little to bring people together. On the contrary, it appears to distort their perception of others, until they become mere abstractions: bit-part players in the story of their lives.

This phenomenon was seen in extremis in the reaction of onlookers to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby earlier this year. Rather than running to his aid, finding a policeman or simply freezing in terror, dozens of bystanders whipped out their phones and started filming the horror show unfolding before them. Possibly they figured that by the time the police had done a risk assessment and checked their diversity training was in order, the killers would be at home with their feet up; in which case, capturing some incriminating video evidence was the responsible thing to do. But I doubt it. It’s far more likely that they saw someone being butchered and simply thought, “Wait until they see this on Facebook”.

When your first reaction to seeing someone murdered is to film it and post it online, you are no longer an active moral being; you’re a detached observer of the world around you. If this is a symptom of the always-connected age, so too is faux concern. Consider those Facebook posts that ask you to ‘like’ a sob story about a complete stranger. They have to be among the most pitiful and inauthentic expressions of human emotion ever devised, making the wearing of a charity wristband look like donating a kidney by comparison. When someone being hacked to death is an exciting ‘I was there’ moment and compassion is demonstrated by means of a mouse-click, something is seriously awry with our moral compass.

The big question is whether social media has contributed to this apparent atomisation of society, or if people’s use of it is merely a symptom. Or could the relationship between the two be dialectical? If so, habitual users of social media can expect to see their usage increase as their resemblance to well-adjusted human beings diminishes. Time will tell how much further they have to fall, but once you start treating murder as status update gold, you must already be somewhere near the bottom.

If social media has the power to drain us of healthy and authentic feeling, could it also have a bearing on our political beliefs and voting habits? Consider the traits of an online exhibitionist: self-absorbed, image-obsessed, incapable of keeping his feelings to himself, and full of superficial concern for others. That describes your average liberal poseur down to a tee. It could be an extract from a Guardian reader’s CV, in fact. Offer him a society based on personal responsibility, trade-offs, mutual accommodation and delayed gratification, and he’ll run screaming.

Look also at the Twitter storms that occasionally hit the headlines. They’re invariably the product of lefties working themselves into a berzerker frenzy over the failure of some people to share their opinions – an act of defiance they would like the government to outlaw. This is pure egotism and, as I’ve argued before, leftism is a fundamentally egotistical ethos; so it would come as no surprise if a correlation were found between social media usage and liberal sympathies.

I’m being facetious, of course. If there were any truth to the idea that social media can turn us into passive, Labour-voting phonies, it would have been remarked upon years ago, if only because it would represent a demographic death sentence for the Right. With Facebook and Twitter becoming the default means of communication for young people, we’d be looking at an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style takeover. Within a couple of generations, much of the population will have been turned into hollowed-out leftists, spouting holier-than-thou bullshit, in the hope of impressing the list of names they call friends. And that’s a ridiculous idea. Isn’t it?

25 comments on “Russell Taylor: In praise of going offline

  1. Simon Roberts
    September 3, 2013 at 6:57 am #

    I’m not convinced that giving someone a tool changes their character. Literacy itself might, but whether a clay tablet or a ball-point pen is the tool doesn’t seem likely to affect the author.

    As you say, the significance of the internet and social media is that they allow us all to become authors. We always could create the written word, the difference now is that we can all publish.

    Taking a video of that murder is tasteless but is it much different from what would have preceeded it – telling people verbally or taking pictures if you happen to have a camera on your person? I don’t think it is – I think the tasteless behaviour is just more visible now.

    • Russell Taylor
      September 3, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

      It’s the potential of social media to make broadcasters of us that’s the key here. It encourages a special degree of self-absorption that might, in time, have an unhealthy effect on our character. As you say, maybe modern technology enables us act on impulses that have always existed. Or maybe those impulses feed off the technology, which in turn evolves to serve those impulses.

  2. Snag
    September 3, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    Yeah, Galaxians was great.

    Wait, that wasn’t the point of the article?

    I remember visiting the Grand Canyon in the eighties, I saw lots of people get out of their cars, take some pictures, then get back in their cars without once actually looking around them and one of the wonders of nature. The media might have changed, but the mindset is as old as the, um, canyons.

  3. John B
    September 3, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    Oh Russell you are too young to remember friends and relatives regaling any who dared visit with their endless slideshows, cine footage, or snaps of their recent holiday, day out, wedding, christening, etc.

    ”I’d tax holiday snaps.’ Monty Python.

    Modern technology just means people don’t have the delay at the chemist waiting for stuff to be developed they can bore others with it right away, and there is an immediacy and ability to bore a wider audience, although it is made up of people trying to out-bore one another.

    At least now there is choice, one has deliberately to put oneself in bore’s way, not unsuspectingly pop round just for a cup of tea and a chat.

    • Russell Taylor
      September 3, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

      If only, John, if only! I’ve been bored witless by many a photo album and slide show in my time. It’s not the online bores who bother me; it’s the way in which ostensibly sociable networks, like Facebook and Twitter, appear to alienate people from each other. Or do they serve the interests of people who are already alienated? As I suggest in the piece, I suspect the answer is somewhere in between.

  4. Anthem
    September 3, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    Pros and cons. Pros and cons. On the other hand, were it not for the internet generally then I probably wouldn’t be reading your stuff right now.

    Would suggest that most *productive* people aren’t sat in front of Twitter and Facebook all day long.

    • Russell Taylor
      September 3, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

      The Internet is a wonderful thing, Anthem. I’m in no doubt about that. If only because it allows you to read my stuff.

  5. Rocco
    September 3, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    I think Simon has got it right. This stuff is just an extension of gossiping to your neighbours or whatnot.

    But, Russell (assuming you’re back, of course) any thoughts on my friendly criticisms of last week’s column? Unfortunately no one on here was willing to enter into debate with me.

    • Russell Taylor
      September 3, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

      Posting photos of your kids and swapping anecdotes isn’t a problem in itself, but the whole business of autobiographic waffling might, just might, have an effect on how we relate to other people. I honestly believe that the flippant reaction to human tragedy witnessed during Lee Rigby’s murder would not have been seen thirty years ago. Something has changed, and if social media isn’t the catalyst for change, I suspect it has at least offered a helping hand.

      • Rocco
        September 3, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

        I don’t know man. I think most people must of the time like to keep their heads down. Especially when trouble of an extraordinary nature kicks off. Even on the case of a fight in a pub, say, how many people really step in? Friends definitely, but almost everyone else leaves well enough alone – save bar staff whose continued employment depends on maintaining a peaceful environment. The rest will film it on their phones, most likely. And if camera phones had been around 30, 50 years ago people would’ve acted like they do now.

        Take Syria, or Libya in recent times. I doubt anyone would seriously maintain that such places were hotbeds of ‘atomised individualism’. Yet look how many videos of horrifying events are taken in phones there every single day.
        We might not like it, but it is simply human nature to want to document terrible spectacles from a safe distance. In the 18th century, for instance, the category of “the sublime” was invented by writers on aesthetics, to mean those things that were beautiful because they were frightening. Paintings of stormy seas, etc.
        We might say we are witnessing the “democratisation” of the sublime.

        (Russell, no thoughts on last weeks stuff then?)

      • Russell Taylor
        September 3, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

        Keep your head down, yes. That’s a natural response. Film it,

      • Russell Taylor
        September 3, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

        I’ll try that again. Keep your head down, yes. That’s a normal response. Film it and treat it as a juicy status update, no. That’s not normal or healthy. As for your questions from last week, no I haven’t given them any thought, I’m afraid. I’m a bit preoccupied with thinking up a topic for next week, which is made doubly difficult by being on holiday in Cornwall at the moment.

      • Rocco
        September 3, 2013 at 7:18 pm #

        Think about war photography, though. Not even the gonzo stuff, but respectable photography that gets onto front covers and wins awards. The subject matter makes it horrible, but no one complains about the photographers being monsters. Those chaps spend their whole lives sniffing out the most horrific things imaginable, and everything they see they’re thinking about the aesthetic effect it’ll have on people they’re trying to impress. They hunt down horror and record it so as to make money, and gain social advancement.
        With the advent of social media and cameras on everything, we are merely seeing the extension of this phenomenon to the average fellow.

        Regarding last weeks stuff Russell, I’ll just take that as a win, eh? 😉

      • Russell Taylor
        September 3, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

        War photographers are a strange breed. A nation of them is a grim prospect. As for last week: debate as a competition? Is that healthy, Rocco?

      • Rocco
        September 3, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

        It is when your winning, Russell! 😀

  6. Russell Taylor
    September 3, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

    Oh, and while we’re talking social media, please follow me on Twitter @RussTayles and help to get Bogpaper to a wider audience.

    • Rocco
      September 3, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

      To be serious for a moment, debate as a competition has a long and venerable history: rhetoric. In the ancient world rhetoric was the most prized of the political arts. The point was not to win, so much as to convince the audience you had won.
      Politics and rhetoric are inseparable, and rhetoric is invaluable to the politician. Especially the politician in a democracy. Perhaps there’s a column in that for you, man.

    • Honey Badger
      September 4, 2013 at 11:18 am #

      I sometimes upload the link to my Facebook … probably give this one a miss though … 😉

  7. Angry Harry (@AngryHarrysPage)
    September 3, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

    • Rocco
      September 3, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

      Thanks for putting that link up, man. I’d read about that before, but I couldn’t remember what it was called. They started researching it when that poor lady got raped in some city in the US in the 70s, and people just looked out their windows rather than get involved, if I remember rightly.

      • therealguyfaux
        September 3, 2013 at 10:35 pm #

        If you’re referring to the notorious Kitty Genovese murder, you’ve made a right George Washington’s Axe of it– it was 1964, and she was robbed and raped and died of stab wounds inflicted in the assault upon her.

        What the story was, was that supposedly 38 apartments overlooked a courtyard in which the assault took place. It was late in the evening, a bit past midnight, and the reporters who wrote about the crime assumed that everyone would have been home and awakened by cries for help. As it happened, they would have had no way of knowing either of those “facts” to be true. And as it happened, two neighbours HAD intervened, causing the assailant to run off, but after they went to their apartments to call police, the perp returned, when he then inflicted the injuries which would prove to be mortal (all this within the space roughly of the time it would take to describe the entire sequence of events out loud, i.e., under a minute). She had no time to return to her apartment, and probably didn’t want to impose on her neighbour by taking shelter till the police arrived to investigate the original incident (a low-priority call if the complaining witness said the perp had been run off).

        Police investigating the crime, interviewing those whose apartments overlooked the crime scene, who claimed to have any knowledge of what happened (some perhaps denying knowledge falsely, it must be admitted), a number well less than the 38 bruited about, said that, to all appearances, it looked to them like a lover’s quarrel; sadly, the experience of many, including many coppers, is that you will not be thanked by the female for your intervention. Those people claimed that as far as they knew, the police were on their way, called by the original witnesses, and they decided discretion was the better part of valour. It must be added that the perp was a young black man and some racial assumptions about violent propensities, as well as attitudes against cross-racial dating may have played into the decision not to intervene.

        The story as reported fed into a narrative of the streets-as-jungle, no-one-is-safe-anywhere-anymore sense of paranoia that the fishwraps were peddling in those days, the rising-anger-of-young-black-men, the we’ve-all-got-ours-and-screw-you complacency of the fairly-well-off white neighbourhood where it occurred– all these tropes/memes were hauled out. It did not help matters that the young woman worked as a barmaid in a pub which was a front for a Mob bookie shop and was not a sweet innocent child. No story of a young woman murdered is irrelevant, it goes without saying, but had not certain details appealed to the hacks covering the story, it would have been seen for the (appalling choice of words, I know) less-than-momentous crime that, sadly, it was. Sad, because murder in a large city, if not epidemic, is hardly rare, just basing it on raw numbers.

        The story allowed a lot of people to make a lot of hay whipping whatever particular whipping boy they preferred, much of it implying self-flagellation being called for.

        Stories about the Kitty Genovese murder are an illustration of John Ford’s Law– “Print the legend.”

      • Rocco
        September 3, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

        Alright mate, fucking hell! That’s what I read in a psychology reader years ago about where the study got its motive from, that’s all. Jesus wept! I dint say I knew all the ins and outs, or owt did I?

  8. Stephen Brown
    September 3, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    Face-Tubes? You-Books? Titting?
    I have no idea what these ‘things’ are, not do I ever wish to discover the dreadful details.
    “Social Media” is a blight on everyday existence; should someone with whom I am conversing glance down at some occult device demanding more attention than is being given to me, I simply walk away!

  9. Rocco
    September 4, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

    @ therealguyfaux, I hope the playful tone came across when you read my reply, because reading it back I’m worried it makes me seem something of a thug.

    I sincerely apologise for any offence. Obviously I’m very grateful to you for filling me in on the subject.


  1. Social media and the new alienation problem « Quotulatiousness - September 3, 2013

    […] Russell Taylor went to a wedding recently, in a rural area outside the range of cell towers and wifi signals. Some of his fellow guests treated the lack of connectivity as if it were the end of the world. The constant need to be “connected” has other unhealthy aspects: […]

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