‘ Knowledge questions, but so too does the slower and more private play of considering ‘: 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 stood on Twitter, even though it had become palpably more adversarial, less friendly. Trolls, pile-ons, patrolling, the endless accusation of dignity signalling- it was increasingly hard to feel safe enough to say anything at all. The ground I didn’t leave was that it had become the place I came to for political report, especially during the seismic modifies 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 safarus and Trump’s election. I couldn’t look away. Even though I suspicious about whether the velocity and strangeness of events had something to do with social media, I still conceived 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 join, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I read every last conspiracy theory and threaded tweet, the reinforce would be illumination. I would lastly be able to understand not just what was happening but what it intended and what causes it would have. But there was never a definitive resolution. I’d taken up residence in a hothouse for paranoia, a factory manufacturing opinion and mistrust.
I recently read a description of the effects of the deeply addictive opioid OxyContin as total serenity and satiation.” I feel as if I have suddenly gained all that I want in life and no longer have anything to fear ,” a customer said.” I am perfectly content both mentally and emotionally .” You can at least understand the appeal of that. But the pharmaceutical I’d get hooked on was terror. I remained up all night speak Nazi websites and Reddit weaves by “incels” that proposed the answer to so-called sexual inequality, by which they symbolized a woman’s right not to have sex with person, was redistribution, by which they intended the loss of a woman’s right not to have sex with someone, which the last time I appeared was called 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 trivial to the momentous, in a document that over the next 7 weeks became a novel, Crudo , writes to real season. I was conducting an experiment. I wanted to record both the news itself and the effect of consuming it in a historically unprecedented acces, to captivate what it was like to live alongside- inside- such a fast-moving cycle, to be saturated by badmouth information.
The thing that manufactured Twitter at once exciting and panicking 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, just recallable biography. It went by extremely hurriedly to process and so I stood at the edge of the creek and fished things out, to think about more slowly.
The first component I recorded was Trump’s sacking of Anthony Scaramucci, who had 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 such courses of the summer, I interrupted my own wed to record the abandonment of Steve Bannon. Twitter was the source of information, it was where I found out about the Grenfell fire and militias marching in Charlottesville, but it was also increasingly the information itself. Trump used it to threaten nuclear war, taking breakings to trashtalk the FailingNewYorkTimes. Hunched over my laptop, I wrote it all down.
One of the same reasons I’d told myself I needed to be online, especially as the world lurched to the far right, was that it was our responsibility 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 spent, 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 word entirely, like those smug people who move to the woods 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 conclude 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 brains. I didn’t want to lie in a tub of poison run by Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.
I deactivated my account 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 days, you can keep your account, even if you deactivate it again immediately. At first I wrote the 30 epoch times in my journal, but at some time 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 encounter 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 imagination. Maybe they’d change mine. I was sick of dogma. What I required was nuance and openness. Frankly, I think that’s where modify 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 therefore seems that when people visualize industrial accidents, they can’t at first empathise, let alone reflect, make decisions or deed, because they are bombarded by an instantaneous flight/ freeze/ fighting 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 everlasting gondola crash.
Over the years that I was there I heard footage of hundreds of people killed and injured: African-American guys choked to fatality by lily-white police, stonings, assassinations, a soul in a enclosure set on fire. I wanted to know what was happening in the nations of the world, but there was never enough time to process the information, to consider responses or campaigns, even to mourn. Everything happened on a knife-edge of psychological actions, which in turn fuelled more distraction and distress.
I didn’t leave social media wholly. I bided 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 identified on Twitter, I’m encountering it chiefly by way of works, which contextualise and analyse the raw data of distress.
Because of Brexit, this spring I’ve observe myself margining back towards my age-old wonts of report consumption. For the past few weeks, after everyone has gone to bed, I gorge on newspaper websites. But no matter how much datum I acquire, the storey move away somewhere completely unexpected by the next day. The intelligence isn’t helping , not in its velocity and not in its abundance. Knowledge things, but so too does the slower and more private deed of thinking.
It seems to me that the most dangerous state to be in right now is numbness, and that our numbness promotes accurately the inhumanities it’s brought about 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, specially about the concentration camp Treblinka. The mass killing laboured, he excused, because the Nazis deliberately 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 words every time I wonder about returning to Twitter, clambering back into that counting soak of cataclysmic datum. He didn’t mean flee as in run away from reality. He intended unspring the net. He meant cut through the wire.
Crudo by Olivia Laing issued by Picador in paperback at PS8. 99. To prescribe a print, go to guardianbookshop.com