The Mice in the Attic

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Synopsis

Some thoughts on tech pollution.

I believe I may have become a grumpy old man. For instance, I’ve noticed that one of the problems of eating in a fast food outlet is that sooner or later a group of teenagers will arrive and gather round a mobile phone to watch loud youtube clips of skateboarders dismounting painfully. Either that, or they’ll blast out modern ‘music’ that sounds like someone trying to wake a person from a coma using a combination of whistles, sirens, explosions and randomly shouted allusions to sex. 

During one such musical interlude in Subway a few weeks ago, it occurred to me to give the teenagers a taste of their own medicine; to this end, I looked over at them and started singing ‘Mull of Kintyre’ passionately at the top of my voice. I suspected (rightly) that the teenagers wouldn’t appreciate the later work of Paul McCartney. 

I’m not sure how I expected them to respond, yet their response surprised me. They looked at me, looked down, looked back, looked down, and looked at each other a few times. Then suddenly one of them solemnly turned the music off and placed his phone down in the centre of the table. After that, the group sat in awkward silence for a while before stammering into a conversation. Soon they were chatting away happily. Naturally, I consider this to be a triumphant outcome.

Alas, tech pollution takes many forms. For example, I can’t remember when we decided as a society that conducting a phone conversation in public is acceptable, but barely a day goes by now when I don’t hear a mobile phone user discoursing solipsistically on a topic that jars with their present context (and mine), as though they had been cut and pasted into the wrong room. 

Obviously, the most annoying thing about overhearing a phone conversation is that you can’t hear the person on the other end of the line; subconsciously you feel as though you’re being addressed by the present speaker; every time they speak, you are alerted anew to their ramblings. In other words, speaking on a mobile phone in public is morally equivalent to repeatedly poking a stranger with a stick. No wonder everyone seems so uptight these days. No amount of mindfulness, Prozac and protest voting can dispel the humiliation of receiving a daily stick-poke.  

Earlier today, I was in a public toilet washing my hands when I heard whooping and snorting and a series of high-pitched, cartoon-like silly voices drifting from one of the cubicles. A few seconds later a respectable-looking, besuited man emerged; he was holding a mobile phone, and had earphones on and a little pop-star microphone next to his mouth. He blithely continued his conversation, staring straight ahead as though I was some kind of invisible wraith. I’ve no idea what he was up to – presumably those peculiar noises meant something to the person he was talking to. I graciously felt his embarrassment for him. 

Out in the street, getting from A to B has become an obstacle course in which the obstacles are people who are trying not to concentrate on moving while moving. Phone-toting pedestrians proceed as though they’re giving themselves a perambulatory palm-reading. Drivers periodically look down at glowing screens in their laps as though demurely trying to avoid eye contact with the windscreen. Cyclists veer from side to side as though they’re steering via the text message they’re writing. You’d think cyclists would know better, being subjected to the maximum level of obliviousness from other road users; people on mobile phones are more likely to notice an impending meteor-strike than the presence of a cyclist.  

It’s all very irksome. But, of course, being human, sometimes our tendency to condemn others is a demonstration of our own guilty conscience – or perhaps I should say subconscience, to coin a word. We are scapegoaters par excellence. If you doubt this, just compare, say, your tendency to complain about consumerism to your tendency to make consumer purchases. 

Although I rarely go in for mobile phone usage in public, I have in recent years become increasingly anxious about the influence of the internet on my life. I’m sure you know the feeling – as though the internet is scampering through your consciousness like a family of mice that has set up home in the attic of your brain. You think about your emails – will you get a reply? You think about your latest facebook post or tweet – ditto. And you reflexively go online at every available moment, often merely to browse aimlessly. 

I’ve begun to suspect that the internet hampers my memory. I don’t seem to remember much of what I read these days, despite enjoying plenty of good books. Have I been filling my head with too much online rubbish? In perennially ruminating about emails and facebook posts and tweets and replies, have I been depriving myself of opportunities to quietly process and store new learning?

I’ve also begun to suspect that going online interferes with my creativity. Is the internet, I wonder, like an imagination simulator? In pumping clouds of loosely connected ideas and images through the mind, does the internet hijack the brain’s creative channels as an alien spaceship might hijack a radio broadcasting frequency? Einstein cooked up the theory of relativity in his imagination; surely browsing the internet could never have a similar outcome.   

Enough is enough. By this I don’t mean I’ve given up on the internet. I’m not a Luddite – undoubtedly the world is a better place for instant communications. And – ahem – I’ve tried abandoning the internet and failed. A few years ago, I literally jumped up and down on my router. No more, I cried! But my sense of liberation soon morphed into multiple trips each day to the nearest bus stop, where I could get a decent wifi signal from the adjacent pub. Self-imposed internet prohibition isn’t the solution. 

No, I’m not giving up on the internet; instead, I’m taking control of it to stop it from taking control of me. The new rules are as follows. Every morning I allow myself about half an hour online while I eat my breakfast. During this time, I browse my favourite websites, just as a Victorian gentlemen consulted the newspapers at the start of the day, and I compose or respond to new emails and do a few tweets and facebook posts. Then I shut Pandora back in her box. After that, the only time I go online during the day is for specific bits of research, if, say, I simply cannot continue with a piece of writing unless I am in possession of some fact or other that is accessible via the internet. As a supporting measure, I’ve reverted back to my old mobile phone – a basic handset without internet functionality. And text messages, too, are for mornings only. 

Having stuck to this routine for several days, I can already feel my old self flooding back. I’m enjoying a renewed sense of cognitive space, for want of a better word. I feel as though I’ve taken a trip to the hills. At lunchtime today I simply sat and ate and thought – about the new book I am writing, about this article, and about all manner of things – with no metaphorical mice scampering through my consciousness. Instead of surrendering to the internet’s imagination simulator, I allowed my own imagination to amuse me.

This evening, in a café, I sat next to a guy who shouted at his computer screen for half an hour. He wasn’t angry, he was just clenching up and booming in that way people do when they’re talking on Skype or on a mobile phone. Tinny voices in your ear and 2D onscreen images don’t have the same reassuring, calming quality of a real person, I suppose.  

I thought about singing Mull of Kintyre. Then I decided no – I’ve got better things to think about.

 

Ben Irvine is a writer, campaigner and philosopher. 
He is editor of the Journal of Modern Wisdom and author of the books Scapegoated Capitalism and Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling.
He is currently running the London Cycle Map Campaign, lobbying for a Tube-style map and network of cycle routes in the UK capital.

Follow Ben on Twitter @BenIrvineAuthor

Find out more at http://benirvine.co.uk

Check out Ben's new book  Scapegoated Capitalism

Scapegoating is one of humankind’s most unpleasant and unspoken practices. From witch-hunts and whipping boys to ritual sacrifices and genocides, our past abounds with shameful examples of individuals and minorities being forced to atone for the misdeeds and misfortunes of the powerful. In this groundbreaking book, philosopher Ben Irvine explores the history and psychology of scapegoating, identifying the tragic forces that tempt us to make culprits of the innocent. In turn, Irvine shines a spotlight on the shocking prevalence of scapegoating today. Confronting popular misconceptions about the source of our modern ills, he makes a compelling and controversial claim: that those who are the most vociferous in their condemnation of modern life have the most to answer for. A book for our times, from beyond the pale, Scapegoated Capitalism is a call for self-examination and responsibility.

Tags: ben irvine, imagination, scapegoated capitalism, tech pollution, technology and creativity, technology overload

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