I remember when I set up my facebook account in 2009. I uploaded some photos to my profile, as you do, and sent out some friend requests. And then I saw a status update that has always stuck in my mind. It was by a female musician who was in a prominent band at the time; a very cool, cutting-edge type band. She was a cool, cutting-edge-type girl – someone I respected. And this is what she had decided to tell the world:
“I’ve just done a poo”
I don’t normally take much interest in other peoples’ bowel movements, but if this was what facebook was all about I figured I had to get with the program. So like several other of her friends (or sycophants) I approved of this earth-shattering revelation by clicking the ‘like’ button.
There was no going back. I had joined the facebook community – a transnational network devoted to the momentary study of slightly interesting things. Millions of people vaguely curious about the minutiae of each others’ lives; briefly intrigued by dancing parrots, and mildly outraged by political issues – just enough to click on an internet petition. I was destined to become a soulless scroller, lost in the flashing lights of competing content.
Now I don’t deny the value of social media for organising events, staying in touch with loved ones, and the sharing of thought-provoking content. And I like my funnies too; cats in boxes should be prescribed on the NHS as a stress-buster. The problem with facebook is that it all happens in the same place; this has become the platform through which many of us work and play, organise and socialise. For the home-working facebook addict, finding a period of focus is like grasping a bar of soap in the bath, their newsfeed crowded with infinite distractions that would destroy the attention span of the Buddha.
I hadn’t felt the need of a digital detox before. I don’t have a clever phone, so when I leave the house I re-enter the 1990s. It’s a simpler place. Snapchat has yet to suffer any of my bus stop selfies and when I need to find my way around an unfamiliar part of the city I just…fail.
But a recent period of hermithood made me feel that I was on a slippery slope. Staying at home most days meant that my intervals between logging on shrank dramatically. The first thing I would do when I got out of the shower was check for notifications, and I would regularly stop a film or video to look for those little red numbers.
I started to worry that I would never again be fully engaged in a piece of culture or an object of study because I would be forever picking at the facebook buffet; constantly grazing but never digesting. So, one Sunday I decided that the following week would be facebook-free.
What was it like, you ask? What happens to a moderately reclusive cultural activist when he avoids a certain blue-coloured website for seven days? Well, I read a whole lot more, finished a song I was stuck on, and discovered something called housework. I also played a strange gig in a deserted library and discussed naturism in a Wine Bar.
But the most interesting thing? BOREDOM
Remember boredom? It’s what used to happen occasionally when we had gaps between things. There used to be special places designed to nurture it, like dentists’ waiting rooms and churches; but nowadays as soon as someone is required to sit down and do nothing, the phone is whipped out.
We are encouraged to think that what benefits us most is a life of interrupted mental stimulus, but it’s not true. Our feelings of boredom are just withdrawal symptoms from the addictive stimuli of modern life, which are largely marketing. Gaps between stimulus are actually vital for our wellbeing. Don’t ask me for the medical studies to back this up, leafing through back issues of the Lancet is just so tedious.
But really – boredom leads to daydreams; and studies have recently shown that it is vital for childrens’ development. It’s a launchpad to fantasy, dressing up and games. And boredom is also a key driver of much youthful creativity; Iggy Pop and The Buzzcocks both wrote songs about it. Without boredom there would be no punk rock!
The mid-70s were rich in boredom. Groups like Pink Floyd and The Carpenters played a vital part in giving the kids the urge to create something more exiting. Sure, the unemployment, power cuts and grey concrete tower blocks also helped, but popular culture needs periods of stagnant tedium in order for new generations to burst through and rejuvenate artforms – I’m serious, I think!
Getting lost is another aspect of life that is becoming eliminated by smartphones; and its extinction could prove disastrous for culture. From Homer’s Odyssey to Finding Nemo, struggling to find your way home is one of the eternal themes. These days Odysseus would be onto google maps in seconds, then easyjet’s site, and have a pizza ordered for when he got home; it would all be far too easy.
Boredom and being lost (in whatever sense) are part of the texture of human experience, and they can ultimately lead to growth, but they are getting squeezed out by the idea that we can never have enough convenience or entertainment. “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” was the satirical title of a Dead Kennedys album from 1987; but in our modern scenario, we may ultimately find that unlimited convenience is in fact spiritual death.
Of course I missed facebook. As the weekend loomed I felt I’d run out of productive things to do. I didn’t want to be productive any more, I was curious to find out what everyone was up to. But I held out for the full week, and aim to repeat the experience regularly – who knows, it may even make feel like going out and being sociable in the ‘real’ world again.
Or I could just stay home and tell you about my poos.