Are Peace And Serenity Gone Forever?

Too many online accounts make for a life of constant checking

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Photo by Sarah Cervantes on Unsplash

Back in 1995, when I was in my late teenage years, I went travelling around Europe with my brother. We began in Paris, moved onto Brussels and Amsterdam, then over to Prague via Berlin.

After that, we went south through the glades of Italy and the groves of Greece. We made friends with other travellers, some Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Dutch and South Africans. We drank from bottles of cheap wine beneath the Eiffel Tower. In early morning Barcelona we roamed the streets in inebriated elation.

Internet cafés were popping up everywhere, often in disused shops or in hostel lobbies. In one such place, a long-haired Australian showed me how to create my very first email account so that I could send messages home and contact the minuscule list of contacts I had scribbled in my notebook.

As we met other travellers, I appended my list with more newly-generated email addresses, so that we could arrange to meet up again if our paths ever crossed. The list grew from about 4 people to 12.

Memories of those travels return to me every now and again, and I think of them with a deep sense of fondness. Sometimes, I scroll to the dusty back-pages of that primitive email account and read through the messages there. The overall tone is more formal, more like written letters than hastily typed messages.

And I remember the genuine pleasure of locating an internet café and the excitement of waiting for a machine to become free, so I could see who had sent me messages in the last 3 or 4 days since the last time I looked. Often nobody had.

Back then I had no spam, or if I did, I didn’t realise it. I was happy to receive every email I got, and I read them all from beginning to end. The only pressure on my time was the cost of the computer I was sat at. Sometimes 2 Francs per hour, sometimes 5 Deutschmarks per half-hour session…

Proliferation of online accounts

These days I look after about eight email accounts, each of which came into existence at different times in my life for one purpose or another.

Email addresses are like bank accounts, being easy to open but less obviously simple to close, so that they have a tendency to accrue and proliferate. Their folder’s fill up with junk, data, information, ideas, records, a weird history of oneself.

Beyond these I am signed up to five social media platforms on which I am intermittently active, and several others that have fallen by the wayside. I have two personal websites, a business website, and untold numbers of private accounts that help administer my consumption of music, films, gas, electricity, flights, car parking tickets, hotel bookings, food, clothes, train rides, books, newspapers, mobile phone tariffs, theatre seats, and so on.

On any typical day, my inboxes might swell by anywhere from 10 to 100 new messages, most of which I don’t want and which I delete without reading beyond the subject line.

One of the most significant changes is that I couldn’t imagine waiting 3 or 4 days to check my inbox. If I go 3 or 4 hours then it’s unusual. I’ve learnt to filter and forget the messages I don’t need, and deal with the messages I do. I’ve become somewhat automatic in this respect, as if my brain has developed new instincts to deal with the onslaught of the stuff I don’t want or need. Perhaps it has.

And then there at the stats. I’ve got analytics running on all my websites, and each of the social media accounts I use offer a suite of graphs and charts that all too easily become addictive.

I’m now beginning to ask myself serious questions about all this: what kind of residue has this steady drizzle of digital trash left in my mind? Is there a ghostly fog of half-forgotten data moving through the deeper reaches of my memory? Am I constantly awake to the inflow of notifications, even when I’m trying to sleep?

Contortions of time

More profound changes are afoot too. I believe it’s possible to say that social media and the technologies that weave through it (smartphones, digital cameras, the web) have altered the way we experience time.

To take a photograph now, for instance, is to engage in a strange contortion. Not only are we capturing the now, but in the possibility of posting the image online, we are also anticipating the future: the likes, thumbs up, shares, retweets and claps. In this way, we have become adept at casting our eyes upon ourselves mid-flow, mid-deed, attuning to both the experience first-hand and the appearance of it as we imagine it might appear to others.

The life-span of an experience is contorted as the social media responses and comments interlace backwards and forwards, disarranging the apparent linearity of our lives into the more malleable form of news-feeds and time-lines.

Of course, memory has always done this: has always supplied conscious experience with a backdrop of images. Yet technology has changed the dynamic to include the aspect of expectation: that is, encouraging us to live partly for the future, expectant of the feedback we are due to receive. Thus our experiences are organised into two parts, the forward looking eye and the over-the-shoulder glance, experienced as both now and what it will become, our future self curated to become a satisfactory past.

If you are old enough — and have the imagination — it is just possible to remember life as it was before digital came and changed it all. I’m thinking of a time when life was lived just once, in a specific moment and location. Memory and the odd photograph afforded replays, but these were prone to fading and their scope was very personal and usually imperfect…

Learning to let it go

I have no good answers. But more recently, I’ve been making a concerted effort to iron things out, flattening these folds and creases.

It begins, I suppose, with learning to relax. I never thought I’d have to learn that again — I was an expert when I was young — but it seems that I do.

Then it evolves into other areas: I’ll take some time away from my laptop, I’ll remember my old heroes, I’ll dust off some buried memories, I’ll remember my original commitments, I’ll close some email accounts, I’ll visit an art gallery, I’ll plant some bluebell bulbs ready for the spring, I’ll forget about the stats (for a while), I’ll kick a football, I’ll read a novel in paperback, I’ll decorate a room in my house, I’ll take some photos and get them printed off, stick them in a photograph album and share them with no one.

In such a way, I’ll train myself towards no more twice-glancing.

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.

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Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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