‘ Knowledge concerns, but so too does the slower and more private ordinance of fantasizing ‘: Olivia Laing on life after Twitter. Photograph: Matt Writtle/ Evening Standard/ Eyevine
After finishing the book, I changed my relationship with social media. I deleted my Facebook account, but remained on Twitter, even though it had become palpably more adversarial, little friendly. Trolls, pile-ons, policing, the endless accusation of virtue signalling- it was increasingly hard to feel safe enough to say anything at all. The intellect I didn’t leave is because it had become the place I came to for political information, 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 suspicious about whether the speeding and strangeness of events had something to do with social media, I still guessed 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 relate, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I speak every last conspiracy theory and threaded tweet, the wage would be illumination. I would lastly be able to understand not just what was happening but what it entailed and what causes it would have. But there was never a definitive judgment. I’d taken up residence in a hothouse for paranoia, a factory manufacturing speculation and mistrust.
I recently read a description of the effects of the intensely addictive opioid OxyContin as total serenity and satiation.” I feel as if I have suddenly gained all that I miss 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 medicine I’d go fastened on was terror. I stood up all darknes speak Nazi websites and Reddit yarns by “incels” that proposed the answer to so-called sexual difference, by which they made a woman’s right not to have sex with someone, was redistribution, by which they made the loss of a woman’s right not to have sex with person, which the last time I looked was announced rape.
The more disturbed I became, the more urgent the need for understanding. On 2 August 2017, I decided to start writing down everything I encountered online, from the inconsequential to the momentous, in official documents that over the next seven weeks became a novel, Crudo , writes to real era. I was conducting an experiment. I wanted to record both the news itself and the effect of consuming it in a historically unprecedented room, to capture what it was like to live alongside- inside- such a fast-moving cycle, to be saturated by badmouth information.
The thing that built Twitter at once exciting and frightening was that it incessantly overwrote itself, a deluge of information, new things stacking up by the second, so that the events of even a week ago seemed ancient, barely recallable biography. It went by extremely hurriedly to process and so I stood at the edge of the brook and fished things out, to think about more slowly.
The first component I recorded was Trump’s sacking of Anthony Scaramucci, who the hell is so briefly been the White House director of communications that a joke went round that return flies had longer life spans: 56,152 likes. Over the course of the summer, I interrupted my own wedding to record the acceptance 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 report itself. Trump used it to threaten nuclear war, taking terminates to trashtalk the FailingNewYorkTimes. Hunched over my laptop, I wrote it all 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 role as citizens to be educated, alert, awake. But recording the process over months been demonstrated by that the actual consequence was that I was hypnotised by horror. The more internet-reality I destroyed, the more I sat there, stupefy, 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 report 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 was almost like my ability to act or speculate or even feel was being impaired irreparably. All I could do was react. 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 thinkers. I didn’t want to lie in a bathroom of poison run by Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.
I deactivated my note in the autumn of 2018, telling myself that I was just going to take a short break. As long as you log in within 30 daylights, you can keep your account, even though it is you deactivate it again immediately. At first I wrote the 30 date years in my diary, but at some spot 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 assemble beings, I didn’t already known better they had once expressed an opinion I hated. Instead I could talk to them. Maybe I’d change their memory. Maybe they’d change mine. I was sick of dogma. What I missed was nuance and openness. Candidly, I think that’s where change comes in the world, and not by shaming and exiling parties on account of statements they’ve typed into a website.
A 2014 study by Dutch neurologists suggests that when people construe industrial accidents, they can’t at first empathise, let alone reflect, make decisions or behave, why it is bombarded by an instantaneous flight/ freeze/ combat response, which has to wear off before they can think in more helpful ways. It seems to me now that being on Twitter was like watching a ceaseless vehicle crash.
Over the years that I was there I checked footage of hundreds of people killed and injured: African-American men strangled to death by lily-white police, stonings, carnages, a man in a cage set on fire. I wanted to know what was happening in the world, but there was never enough time to process the information, to consider responses or effects, even to sorrow. Everything happened on a knife-edge of psychological reactions, which in turn fuelled more embarrassment and distress.
I didn’t leave social media wholly. I abode on Instagram, where there is very little politics and very little disagreement. Looking at a photo of garden-varieties and food makes a nice antidote to the book I’m working on now, which is about violence and freedom. Although the material is just as heavy as the things I find on Twitter, I’m encountering it principally by way of notebooks, which contextualise and analyse the raw data of distress.
Because of Brexit, this spring I’ve acquisition myself fringing back towards my age-old garbs of report uptake. For the past few weeks, after everyone has gone to bed, I gorge on newspaper websites. But no matter how much knowledge I acquire, the storey has moved somewhere completely unexpected by the next day. The datum isn’t helping , not in its rate and not in its abundance. Knowledge materials, 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 precisely the inhumanities it’s caused by, a vicious circle it’s hard to know how to stop. Over the last two years, I’ve become haunted by something the painter Philip Guston said during 1968. He’d been thinking about the Holocaust, especially about the concentration camp Treblinka. The mass killing cultivated, he interpreted, because the Nazis purposely persuaded numbness in both the victims and the tormentors. And hitherto, 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 texts every time I wonder about returning to Twitter, climbing back into that counting tub of disastrous knowledge. He didn’t mean escape as in run away from reality. He meant unspring the net. He meant cut through the wire.
Crudo by Olivia Laing is published by Picador in paperback at PS8. 99. To guild a imitate, go to guardianbookshop.com