Driven to distraction

I seem to have reached an impasse with the great majority of my friends, relatives, colleagues and associates – a point that sees us veering steadily in two diametrically opposed directions. The source of our dissension is the internet. They feel I’m forfeiting my opportunity for vastly improved connectedness by avoiding Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere; I feel I’m preserving it. They tell me I’m left behind and out of the loop by my choice to shun online social networking; I’m flat out struggling to maintain offline social networking. They believe I’m passing up chances for establishing an online profile; I want nothing to do with an identity curated primarily for self-promotion and stoked with compulsive self-reportage.

They tell me I sound like a cranky old Luddite. The blogosphere, they explain eagerly, is like a vast salon, full of voices and ideas keen for your attention, full of musings on books, films and public events, full of passionately held opinions and lively discussion – exactly what a writer needs. They make it sound like Paris in the 1920s – a creative ferment, testing my capacity to keep up. But the closer I look, the harder I find this to swallow. It’s gradually come to seem, instead, that the last thing a writer needs is the clamouring, 24/7, caffeinated babble-fest that now beckons so seductively from the glowing screen.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the internet. Access to such a rich store of information is a marvel; wandering idly among this inconceivably massive repository, a dizzying pleasure. I confess I still visualise it as an enormous library or filing cabinet that I can go to when I need information about anything from stonemasonry to statistics. But, in its current incarnation, the net demands more of its users. You’re now expected to socialise; to upload your photos and impressions; to keep a diary for the whole world to read; to interact and respond to other users.

That’s where the internet and I come to a reluctant parting of the ways.

I love the internet, yes, but I’m not in love with it. I don’t want to become one of those addicts who checks their email every five minutes and takes their iPhone to bed. It’s a phenomenal tool, but I just want to be friends – and I’m afraid that for me, ‘friend’ is always going to be a noun rather than a verb.

Still, the net hovers eagerly round like a persistent ex who can’t quite believe that I meant it, inviting me to ‘follow’ businesses and websites on Twitter and Facebook, asking me what I’m doing right now, denying me access unless I join up, framing every page with a shimmering nebula of flashing ads. I want the information – the hard-to-find quote, the news story that needs verification, the arcane bit of technical or historical knowledge – but, frankly, my time at the desk is limited and precious enough without informing the world that I’ve had breakfast or watching videos of someone else’s cat.

My forays and forages into the world of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have led me to the uneasy conclusion that the blogosphere is like Paris in the twenties – a place with a small number of dedicated and industrious artists, and a vast throng of untalented hangers-on self-consciously driven to attract attention to themselves. Even the most passionate net aficionados acknowledge that the web is awash with self-serving junk through which you must wade to find anything of value. We would like to think, I guess, that we can navigate our way calmly through the dross, filtering it and seeking each other out under a like-minded umbrella of reasoned and edifying discourse – but if we are huddling under that umbrella, it’s because it’s raining schlock out there. Raining cats and dogs, all helpfully uploaded onto YouTube, twenty hours’ worth every minute. I’ve got nothing against schlock – I just don’t choose to get soaked in it for twenty-two hours each week, which is the time the average Australian spends online.

I suspect, too, that, within the great democratised playing field of cyberspace, it is actually important to pay attention to the junk, the tide of never-ending, self-replicating slush. For if all the flame wars on blog sites, the thousands of hours of uploaded content and their garbled comments, really do represent the lowest common denominator of the new culture, surely we need to observe and absorb them, since where else is that commonality going to be found, now that the web is not just our library but our source of news, music, recreation, correspondence and culture wars? That’s why the shift into online social networking has wrought such a seismic shift in the way the internet is used – and it’s the implications of this shift for creative writers that I want to discuss.

Last February I joined a group of well-known international writers on a two-day retreat prior to Adelaide Writers’ Week. The idea was to provide a chance to sleep off jetlag, relax amid tranquil surroundings, and meet and talk with other writers. Within an hour of arrival, though, the ominous rumour was confirmed – the guestrooms had no wireless broadband! The writers present were horror-struck. They hurriedly formed a roster for the single computer available in the hotel’s office. They paced like chain-smokers in an airport. Late at night, I could see them walking forlornly in the moonlight in the adjacent car park, their glowing laptops held aloft like divining rods, searching desperately for a signal. The topic of wireless deprivation took up, in that brief forty-eight hours, more discussion time than I would have thought possible, resulting in a general rueful recognition that most had a habit they hadn’t realised was so controlling.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Next time you notice, in a café, the eerie silence as everybody’s texting, tweeting or staring into their laptop, remember the recent statistics that wherever ten Australians gather, three of them will have Facebook profiles, at least two will use Twitter and one will log onto MySpace.

The technology was supposed to free us – that’s how it was sold – enabling us to work anywhere, during our own time, and on our own terms. Now we can’t seem to log off, and the long leash has become a choker chain. Like patients in a hospital carting around their oxygen machines, we can’t put our gadgets down. Half of all users surveyed in one AOL study admitted they were addicted to the internet. In 2008, when Gmail crashed for a few hours, Google was flooded with panicked calls. A study done in the UK examining stress caused by email networks failing showed that 10 per cent of office workers actually physically assaulted their computers when their system went offline (why can’t that footage be on YouTube!). The BlackBerry’s not nicknamed ‘CrackBerry’ for nothing.

Psychologists have noted that such symptoms suggest an epidemic of obsessive-compulsive disorders. They cite a range of increasingly common behaviours: the compulsive checking of incoming messages, needing a fix even when you’re on holidays; the impatient, abrupt manner adopted in real conversations or avoidance of face-to-face communication in the first place; poor concentration; short attention spans; poor sleep; frustration and confusion; increased disinhibition online and decreased empathy in the actual world.

Information consumes our attention. The more information we are asked to consume in the form of increasing trillions of emails and text messages, the more we need to allocate our ration of attention efficiently to deal with the torrent facing us. We have, therefore, the most distraction-prone workforce in the history of humanity. The skills we need to juggle it all – continual switching and pivoting, sorting and prioritising – short-change older and more durable talent to do with memory and learning. Technology and our use of it has begun to program our brains for speed rather than mindfulness. And here, for anyone interested in creativity and originality, lies the crux of the problem.

A writer is someone on the lookout, pretty well constantly, for patterns – patterns in speech and events, in forgetful self-disclosure, in the bigger existential narrative. As Nabokov puts it: ‘The pattern of the thing precedes the thing.’ Creativity is about mindfulness and paying close, sustained attention to something. What makes a poem a marvel is not its brevity or how quickly it can be skimmed, but the evidence of wholly mindful attention the poet has paid to examining its subject matter, and distilling it. For this reason, solitude and retreat have almost universally been considered essential preconditions for the writing process. Consciously turning off the stimulus sometimes means removing yourself from your familiar environment – John Cheever famously took an elevator every morning from his New York apartment to work facing a blank wall in a windowless basement – but creativity requires, at its heart, a time of wilful suspension.

When we’re wired 24/7, though, nothing can be suspended and there can be no respite. Constant connection favours instantaneous reaction and response, not distillation of ideas. In fact, the tendency to believe that our every thought is worth recording as it occurs to us, worth uploading onto our blog or sending to our followers, is a compulsion that blunts our capacity for reflective, private contemplation. It sets us outside ourselves, the way that a camera brought out at a party changes behaviour from spontaneity to the self-conscious imperative to ‘act’ having a good time.

The design of online technology has moved, recently, from nurturing and rewarding a desire for attention to reflecting something that seems even more infantile: separation anxiety. Announcing the blow-by-blow trivia of your life means you never have to be alone – or learn to cope with being alone. But mastering isolation, learning to cope with the vacuum of your own boredom, to fill it without the aid of outside stimulus, is, in fact, part of the creative process itself – and avoiding it sticks you in a continuous loop of anxious dependency.

Enthusiasts for Twitter are vehement that constant self-disclosure, the process of stopping several times a day to report on what you’re thinking and feeling, is an indispensable tool for connecting, making friends and staying on top of everything everybody is doing. But I don’t want to stay on top. I want to stay a little to the side – or even at the bottom. I want to steer clear of hyperactivity and clamour, to curb the impulse towards automatic disinhibition. I’d like to think that words and ideas benefit from time and space before being ground up in the great liquidator of online communication.

In his recent book Reality Hunger, David Shields delivers a broadside to traditional novels, deriding them as works of ‘essentially nostalgic entertainment’. He sees himself at the vanguard of a new sensibility that celebrates the ‘seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored and unprofessional.’ His manifesto uses plagiarism as a postmodern creative tool, cutting and pasting a collage of thoughts and aphorisms of other writers, whom he only acknowledges, he tells us, at his publisher’s insistence – we’re encouraged to cut their names out of the book.

For a vision of the unfiltered, uncensored and unprofessional, though, you don’t need to go any further than YouTube. Plough through any of the twenty hours uploaded in any given minute and it is the mashup that emerges as the most weirdly ubiquitous. Like more than half of Shields’ book, a mashup takes extracts from various media and edits them into a new collation. On YouTube, a new soundtrack is often added by the anonymous masher. I’m not being a snob about this – some of these clips are among the funniest and most original things I’ve found on the net – but if we’re making accusations of nostalgia, the mashups certainly seem intensely preoccupied with old TV shows, movies, advertisements and songs: popular culture, in fact, as it existed before the web.

‘It is astonishing how much of the chatter online,’ says Jaron Lanier in You Are Not a Gadget, ‘is driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media and that is now being destroyed by the net. Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn … since the web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.’

This reappropriation and rearrangement is another attribute I find antithetical to creative originality. Every artist tries to manage the context in which their expression is perceived, so that it makes the sense they intended. This isn’t about ego as much as to ensure that a precise effect is conveyed, a desire for meaning. Mashing the work up into a compound product and extracting fragments decontextualises the wholeness of the material. The connections of the parts in their original context – the experience intended to be conveyed by their original artist – are no longer accessible, and so these qualities will usually be lost. A sentence of your story posted on someone’s blog, or movie stills accompanied by someone’s favourite song on a YouTube clip, removes the context, connection and meaning that makes the original work so idiosyncratic. What’s more, the originator has no control over this grinding-up process, any more than you can prevent a self-appointed online critic blithely giving away the ending of your book or a blogger quoting you verbatim from memory – inaccurately and out of context – after a public event at which you’ve spoken.

‘As writers,’ says US author Wells Tower, ‘we need to care hugely about each word, each syllable, its valences, its music, and we need readers who care enough and read closely enough to be susceptible to our art. I think the internet is noxious to this sort of aesthetic transaction. When we read something on the web, we skim a paragraph or two, conduct a quick gist harvest and move onto the next story. What’s the last great book you read where the pleasure lay not in the slow savouring of the language, but in its gist?’

Other writers theorise that this kind of ‘gist harvest’ is starting to destroy their capacity to focus and interpret what they’re actually reading. Nicholas Carr, in his essay ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’, outlines his suspicions in this way: ‘What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.’ He contrasts this with uninterrupted reading on the page: ‘In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.’

When we read online, suggests Maryanne Wolf in her article ‘Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’, we obey the style promoted by the medium, which puts efficiency and immediacy above all else. We tend to be ‘mere decoders of information’, an experience in which the mind is denied the ‘deep flow’ state necessary for the flourishing of creative ideas and complex thinking, just as it is when we are bombarded by jarring, continuous overstimulus.

Wells Towers describes this flow: ‘The trick is to will yourself into the hypnotic state where you believe your own language and your own story. You have to pare out distractions, especially the vast banality of the internet, which I find lethal to fiction writing. Fiction is so much harder and scarier to write than nonfiction. It requires an enormous amount of concentration and faith to carve out that little bit of space into which you can insert a world that feels real. I have a nonfiction desk and a fiction desk, and I’ve deliberately not gotten wireless internet. In order to go online, I have to go over to the nonfiction desk.’

Towers isn’t the only author to have come to that conclusion. ‘It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction,’ says Jonathan Franzen bluntly in the Guardian’s recent ‘Ten Rules for Writing Fiction’ lists. ‘Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet,’ advises Zadie Smith in the same article.

Over my desk, to remind myself, I’ve pinned a list of those symptoms described as typifying likely internet addiction:


Disinclination for face-to-face communication

Poor concentration

Decreased attention span


Decreased empathy, increased disinhibition

Frustration and confusion

Go through the list again mentally, naming the opposite characteristic of each symptom described, and you’ll notice an odd but unsurprising correlation. Add the need to welcome emptiness, solitude and the mastery of your own restless boredom, and you’ll have the ideal mental state for writing.

It shouldn’t have to be a battle to constantly ward off the barrage of stimulus, but at present, it is. Clearing a space away from the great cacophony of online chatter requires a certain vigilance. It feels odd to maintain and defend an instinct for privacy, and the conviction that you need to nurture those glimmering ideas in a secluded mental greenhouse for a while before delivering them to the world. What strange times we live in, that it almost feels an act of subversion to reach behind the computer to pull out the cable, sit in the silence with a blank page, gather your nerves, and start.