‘ Knowledge stuffs, but so too does the slower and more private behave of pondering ‘: Olivia Laing on life after Twitter. Photograph: Matt Writtle/ Evening Standard/ Eyevine
After finishing the book, I changed my relationship with social media. I removed my Facebook account, but bided on Twitter, even though it had become palpably more adversarial, little friendly. Trolls, pile-ons, policing, the endless accusation of goodnes signalling- it was increasingly hard to feel safe enough to say anything at all. The rationale I didn’t leave is because it has now become the place I came to for political report, especially during the seismic mutates of 2016.
That year I slept with my laptop on the pillow beside me, waking multiple times in the night to check my feed. Twitter was my constant companion, the lens through which I watched the EU referendum, Brexit, the American presidential expedition and Trump’s election. I couldn’t look away. Even though I suspected that the rate and strangeness of phenomena “ve got something” to do with social media, I still speculated social media was the place to find out what was really going on, hours before the clumsy newspapers caught up.
I wasn’t so much addicted to the spectacle as to the ongoing certainty that the next click, the next relation, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I read every last conspiracy theory and stranded tweet, the wage would be illumination. I would eventually be able to understand not just what was happening but what it symbolized and what consequences it would have. But there was never a definitive resolution. I’d taken up residence in a hothouse for paranoia, a factory manufacturing gues and mistrust.
I recently read a description of the effects of the intensely addictive opioid OxyContin as total happiness and satiation.” I feel as if I have unexpectedly gained all that I crave in life and no longer have anything to fear ,” a user said.” I am perfectly content both mentally and emotionally .” You can at least understand the appeal of that. But the pharmaceutical I’d get robbed on was terror. I abode up all darknes decipher Nazi websites and Reddit weaves by “incels” that proposed the answer to so-called sexual difference, by which they symbolized a woman’s right not to have sex with someone, was redistribution, by which they entailed the loss of a woman’s right not to have sex with person, which the last time I searched was called rape.
The more perturbed I became, the even more urgent the need for understanding. On 2 August 2017, I decided to start writing down everything I encountered online, from the unimportant to the momentous, in travel documents that over the next seven weeks became a novel, Crudo , written in real time. I was conducting an experiment. I wanted to record both the information itself and the effect of consuming it in a historically unprecedented road, to captivate what it was like to live alongside- inside- such a fast-moving cycle, to be saturated by badmouth information.
The thing that realized Twitter at once exciting and frightening is because it perpetually overwrote itself, a spate of information, new things stacking up by the second, so that the events of even a week ago seemed ancient, just recallable biography. It went by extremely hurriedly to process and so I stood at the edge of the brook and fished situations out, to be considered more slowly.
The first item I recorded was Trump’s sacking of Anthony Scaramucci, “whos been” so briefly been the White House director of communications that a joke went round that fruit flies had longer life spans: 56,152 likes. Over the course of the summer, I ended my own bridal to record the abandonment of Steve Bannon. Twitter was the source of news, it was where I found out about the Grenfell fire and militias marching in Charlottesville, but it was also increasingly the news itself. Trump used it to threaten nuclear war, taking violates to trashtalk the FailingNewYorkTimes. Hunched over my laptop, I wrote everything is down.
One of the reasons I’d told myself I needed to be online, especially as the world lurched to the far right, was that it was our obligation as citizens to be educated, alerting, awake. But recording the process over months been demonstrated by that the actual consequence was that I was hypnotised by repugnance. The more internet-reality I ingested, the more I sat there, numb, paranoid, drained of hope.
I decided to leave not because I didn’t want to know how bad things were. I didn’t want to cut out the news altogether, like those smug people who move to the lumbers or give up dealing with money and don’t realise the reason it works for them is because they’re white and 22. I left because I felt like my ability to act or fantasize or even feel was being shattered irreparably. All I could do was greeting. I didn’t want to be so polarised, or to lose all faith in the ability of humans to learn, to discuss, to change their judgments. I didn’t want to lie in a shower of poison run by Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.
I deactivated my detail in the fall of 2018, telling myself that I was just going to take a short break. As long as you log in within 30 daytimes, you can keep your account, even if you deactivate it again immediately. At first I author the 30 era times in my journal, but at some degree I forgot and when I logged back in the network didn’t know who I was.
It was sucha relief to be offline. If I met beings, I didn’t already know that they had once expressed an opinion I loathed. Instead I could talk to them. Maybe I’d change their brain. Maybe they’d change mine. I was sick of dogma. What I missed was subtlety and openness. Honestly, I think that’s where modification comes in the world, and not by shaming and exiling beings on account of statements they’ve typed into a website.
A 2014 learn by Dutch neurologists suggests that when people recognize industrial accidents, they can’t at first empathise, let alone reflect, make decisions or deed, simply because they bombarded by an instantaneous flight/ suspension/ combat response, which has to wear off before they can think in more helpful roads. It seems to me now that being on Twitter was like watching a everlasting gondola crash.
Over the years that I was there I attended footage of hundreds of people killed and injured: African-American humanities strangled to death by grey police, stonings, assassinations, a husband in a cage set afire. I wanted to know what was happening in the world, but there was never enough time to process the information, to consider responses or causes, even to sorrow. Everything happened on a knife-edge of emotional actions, which in turn fuelled more confusion and distress.
I didn’t leave social media wholly. I stood on Instagram, where there is very little politics and very little disagreement. Looking at a photo of gardens and food makes a nice antidote to the book I’m working on now, which is about violence and exemption. Although the material is just as heavy as the things I appreciated on Twitter, I’m encountering it mainly by way of journals, which contextualise and analyse the raw data of distress.
Because of Brexit, this spring I’ve observe myself periphery back towards my old attires of report uptake. For the past few weeks, after everyone has gone to bed, I gorge on newspaper websites. But no matter how much intelligence I acquire, the legend has moved somewhere completely unexpected by the next day. The info isn’t helping , not in its accelerate and not in its abundance. Knowledge troubles, but so too does the slower and more private behave of thinking.
It seems to me that the most dangerous state to be in right now is numbness, and that our numbness facilitates precise the brutalities it’s caused by, a vicious circle it’s hard to know how to stop. Over the last two years, I’ve become preoccupied by something the painter Philip Guston said in 1968. He’d been thinking about the Holocaust, especially about the concentration camp Treblinka. The mass killing made, he clarified, because the Nazis purposely generated numbness in both the victims and the tormentors. And yet, a small group of prisoners did manage to escape.” Imagine what a process it was to unnumb yourself, to see it completely and to bear witness ,” he said.” That’s the only reason to be an artist: to escape, to bear witness to this .”
I think about those messages each time I wonder about returning to Twitter, climbing back into that amounting soap of catastrophic knowledge. He didn’t mean flee as in run away from reality. He represented unspring the catch. He symbolized cut through the wire.
Crudo by Olivia Laing issued by Picador in paperback at PS8. 99. To order a imitate, go to guardianbookshop.com