outsourcing our souls

I wonder if the online world doesn’t actually provide us with a sense of structure we can easily doublecheck, and an environment of security most would argue is manifestly not the case.  And in such a context, the offline world becomes a real challenge – a really hard call for sensitive souls to deal properly with.

A case in point.

I spent the last couple of days in London.  I’d never used an Oyster card before.  For those of you who don’t know, it’s a contactless payment system to allow you to travel around the city.

I don’t know, even now, how to properly use it.  I don’t feel confident in its using.  I’d much prefer it to have its own LCD screen, which informed you, as and when you needed, how much dosh was left on it; how much you had spent.

But it doesn’t work like that.

Neither is the Underground – nor the other rail & road services which connect off it – a network I understand with the necessary degrees of confidence.  Perhaps familiarity breeds contentment – who knows?  If I spent some time in London, I’m sure I could see it as a real-world equivalent of a blogging CMS; and be as comfortable with that network as I am with online ones.

So what was the purpose of all this stressful travelling around?  I was attending the last public interview of Alan Rusbridger, as editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper for the past twenty years or so; an event and a half as it turned out; an event worthy of all the stress I kind of had to endure.

I even got to meet him after the interview; he was pressing the flesh patiently as any politician must.  In a sense, then, being an editor is like being a politician; in the same way, perhaps, as a pope like Pope Francis shows a religious personage can also be political: politically attuned, at the very least.

Before the occasion started, convivial drinks were had by convivial people you’d probably expect to attend such a gathering.  I’m not sure I am exactly that sort of person; but maybe oddballs fit into the Guardian‘s left field too.

The interview lasted around ninety minutes and covered a lot of ground.  It reminded us of historical idiocies: of libel actions built on the sands of massive lies; of the phone-hacking stories; of the Trafigura super-injunctions which in themselves were super-injuncted (if I remember rightly …); of Snowden, the surveilled past he described and the rabbits-in-headlights future we are now living; of that awful billowingly fuel-laced 9/11 frontpage; of this and that and so much more.

What shone through all the way was a steely humanity: a necessary thick skin even notable editors sometimes fail to entirely acquire.  I’m not sure I’ll ever have it; so really not sure I’ll ever be what – otherwise – I might have easily been.

But in the absence of something one would wish to possess, one can only admire more fully those who demonstrate it really can be done.

After the event itself, we went up for the complementary drinks.  In the mix of disinterested and interested souls, there was the whiff of self-representation amongst some of those who attended.  I always feel a little bit uncomfortable on these occasions: it seems bad form to approach someone who’s celebrating their tenure in order to exchange a business card.  But I suppose thick skins do make the world go round.  Or something …

Yes.  Most people seemed older, and didn’t care too much about the impact of their words; but there was one young and gently thoughtful thirteen-year-old who spoke so clearly on the matters he had witnessed, it cheered me up immensely.  As someone who’s part of a generation which has so failed the world, I can only hope more of these youngsters grab what has been our manifest and rank failure, and manage – in some way – to turn it round.

I see my own weaknesses, and wonder if I can ever turn my back story into history.  I’m not sure it’s possible: it’s easy for people to play mind games with me; such an easy sport that like fox hunting, it should surely be outlawed.

Though they do say they want to bring it back, don’t they?

My question, then, I suppose is this: how can we create a world where the mind-gamers don’t trash and poison normal human relations?  How can editors help to edit reality so it reaffirms instead of damages human discourse?  How can the sacred role of journalistic endeavour bring us real truths that’ll pan out like the nuggets we really deserve?

How can we stop the bad editors taking control – of going so far as to outsource our souls?  And how can we ensure that the mischievously good, clearly the Mr Rusbridgers of the world, win on our behalf the battles we need fighting?

Answer me that, and we’ll have solved half of everything that’s currently hurting.

Fail to provide any cogency – and people like myself, at least, who probably see and comprehend far too much of what really happens out there, will simply shrivel away in a morale-sapping decay we could easily call a final resignation.

a new twitter tool to break off diplomatic relations

I’ve been getting the same sinking feeling, tweeting and reading between this social network and that.

I used to have a Twitter account with rather a lot of followers.  It’s still there, but I don’t use it.  Maybe it’s wrong of me not to remove it altogether.

I don’t know how many followers it has now.  Probably not very many.

I don’t know about you but here in Britain, the news is pretty unremitting.  If it’s not VIP paedophilia, it’s terrorism.  If it’s not the evils of corporations, it’s news from beyond the notorious grave of the evils of nation-states.

I don’t know about you, but I find these things hard to deal with.  They say that people with epilepsy – I have the condition, by the way – are more sensitive to visual stimuli.  If they’re more sensitive to visual stimuli, why not other kinds as well?

It seems to me we have a serious problem.  There’s a lot of information; little power.  A lot of justice; little resource.  A lot of wealth; limited access.

Knowledge is no longer power.  Its value has been severely inflated: now everyone knows, it doesn’t matter we know; it doesn’t make any difference.  The criminals amongst us, whether political or business, carry on without a care in the world.  And those politicians and businesspeople who are anything but criminal get painted with the same broad brushstrokes.

Social networks are a fantastic invention.

But knowing so much about the dark things in life – and inevitably, bad news sells – can be terribly depressing; can make us incapable of seeing a way forwards.

That’s the problem of brushing shoulders with these dark things I mention.  Inevitably, ultimately, they cloak us with their ways of being.  We see and do like they see and do, or at the very least we remember how they see and do; and then it becomes so difficult to simultaneously remain aware of the very best of life whilst the horrors are served up on a virtual platter every day.

It’d be grand if social networks could make the world a better place.  Yet if we don’t see the rubbish the bad are creating, or if we deliberately choose to look away in order to protect ourselves from feeling so down, how can we stop them – in the first place – from making the world a worse place?

How can we use social networks to create a better planet – even as we need to keep tabs on the awful planet it currently is?

It’s a process of cross-contamination, that is clear.  But why is bad seemingly more powerful than good?  My religion, from which I am firmly lapsed, taught me the opposite.  And I suppose people like my mother would say the world is at is because those like myself have done precisely what they have done: turn away, if you like, from the straight and narrow.

I don’t believe, myself, this is the case.

I don’t think such a simplistic explanation is useful.

Yet the problem, an age-old problem, is simply magnified by our using of social networks.

If it was difficult enough to be good in medieval times, how much more difficult is it now when a billion tweets and likes prick our consciences – or not, as the case may be?

I’d like to think that not all is lost.  Partly, because I think a possible solution exists.  In fact, it’s one I’ve only started to take onboard recently.

In my old Twitter account, I think I only blocked once or twice in my life there.  I never remember muting: neither retweets nor completely.


As my current account slowly seems to be accumulating the flotsam of miserable news I left behind me previously, I experimented the other day by simply muting the retweets of one of my followers.  I didn’t break up completely – that seemed so harsh.  I simply silenced part of their output.  The relief was considerable; the need, in hindsight, patent.

I tried again today with another account: a similar degree of satisfaction.


I know.

I know what you’re thinking.

It’s not only passive-aggressive to do such stuff – it’s also quite cowardly.

Maybe so.

Maybe it is.

I wonder, though, if it isn’t actually a white lie well worth telling.

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should; but just because it’s not the most honest procedure doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.  It’s an example, if you like, of diplomacy in social networks.  And the real world, without diplomacy, really wouldn’t get very far at all.

So if we really do want to use community tech to make the real and online worlds better places, why not develop tools that actively promote diplomatic behaviours?  Consciously implement protective measures which, without being patently rompedoras, do break up the kind of feelings which the unremitting news I mention is once again producing in my sensitive soul.

At least occasionally.

Why do we have to be full-on in expressing our opinions?  Wouldn’t it be possible, for example, to program an anti-flamewar tool – an anti-trolling filter, if you like – which detected keywords in any particular exchange and actually made continued tweeting or engagement physically impossible for, say, ten or twenty seconds?

Or, for the worst offenders, a day?

If necessary …

Like banning someone temporarily from a videogame for not complying with minimum rules of engagement.

Lots of objections.  From data protection to freedom of expression.

But I’d only be suggesting a very short pause.  If verbal violence was the consensual weapon of choice, it could then proceed as always.

The anti-flamewar tool, we could call it.  The virtual equivalent of breaking off diplomatic relations.

So what do you think?  Do we now … well … are we at that point where we literally need to engineer tactfulness?

how easy would it be to say goodbye?

Jemima Kiss tweets the following this morning:

I don’t know the circumstances of the matter, nor is it my business to do so, but I am loosely reminded of an article I read last night:

Just days earlier, my bosses at Ars—the ones who usually keep me busy playing with laptops, smartphones, tablets, and video games—had an unusual proposition for the staff. They needed one volunteer to take a spontaneous overnight train vacation. Oh, a fun weekend on company time? Sign me up. The catch? I wouldn’t get to use my smartphone or any other modern portable device until the second day of the trip. Once I got home, naturally I had to write about it.

And it made me wonder: how easy would it be to say goodbye to the worldwide web and its associated infrastructures?

To be honest, I think the answer – for even the most gadget-focussed of us – would be: “Surprisingly easy!”  Yes.  It’s probably fair to say the Internet-supported environments we’re so attached to are addictive in some way or another.  But I think the addiction resides more in their freemium nature – ie we get them in exchange for personal data rather than pounds, dollars and euros – than in their essential addictiveness.

It’s easy, of course, easier than putting a coat on and getting into a car and driving off to a forest, to press a button and see a video streaming from some server.

It’s easy, of course, to glance at a saucy notification.

It’s easy, of course, to question why no one gets in touch.

It’s easy, of course, to get mad at intermittent service.

But in the absence of such “free-domains” (not exactly freedoms), I’m sure a picnic basket, placed in the corner of a blanket, spread gloriously over fragrant meadow-grass, would begin to recover its attractions of the past.

We’re not really addicted to Facebook or Twitter, though they, as businesspeople, would probably like to think they’ve done everything possible to make it so – thus ensuring and guaranteeing their future business models.

What we’re actually addicted to, since time immemorial, are these aforementioned free-domains in general – whether virtual or real: from municipal parks and facilities galore to national wastelands on moors and wooded lands alike (how inappropriately we term them “wastelands”!  As if walking and running and gazing at landscapes was a waste of land in any century …).  The fact that, right now, Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp and the rest should dominate our every thinking moment doesn’t mean we couldn’t, one day, say goodbye to them all and hello to something else.

I’m optimistic, and I hope you are too.

Let’s use the web whilst we can, but – please! – let’s not turn it into a fetish of needs when, in truth, it represents far more wants than needs; and those mainly being on the sides of the tech-providers various.

A picnic basket with a bottle of juice or fine wine; hard-boiled eggs; freshly-cut sandwiches; cold meats or vegetables.  All to be shared with a newly-discovered lover or a wonderfully-treasured old friend; a spouse and kids or a lonely person who’d like a bit of company.

And as the sun sets slowly behind the trees, a day spent in consonance with the disconnected sounds of fluttering leaves.


Isn’t that easy?

Freemium economics was never the exclusive invention of the tech behemoths.  Our towns, cities and national governments were using it via taxes for yonks and yonks.  So when someone slaps you down for believing in a bigger state, ask them what kind of state they really believe in.

And then mention that luxuriously sense-filled picnic basket.  And ask them how they’ll manage to replicate it.