My professional work is in teaching and about media and communications. But for a long time, I didn’t reflect upon my own relationship with digital technology and digital networks. The idea of chronic distraction is a pathology that I know a lot about. I understand how the connected life is, or very easily can be, a life lived in the present, where you’re flitting like a moth from website to website, link to link, and device to device, bouncing like a pinball from one impulse to another in a growing confusion of going nowhere and not realising it. Millions have lives like this to a greater or lesser extent. Lift your eyes from the screen and look around you, in the train, in the supermarket, in traffic, in the street and in the classroom. And think of all those uncountable others in rooms in homes and offices who just sit there, connected but alone.
My trouble was that for a long time, I didn’t look and didn’t know that I was just like those whom I pitied: the captured, the distracted, the rude, the self-absorbed and the blinkered. The reason I am writing this now is because I managed to change myself. As I will show you, became a different person. In a way, at least.
The first thing inevitably in questions of habit is to recognise and accept that you have a problem. One day, out of the blue, I told myself that I had a problem, and then I moved on. I didn’t find God, or yoga, or the twelve-step program to recovery although who knows, these might have worked at the personal level as well. But what I did end up finding was time.
The central aspect of my professional work, alongside media, is the study of time. It was the specific relationship with time that I came to see as the most important feature of my digital life, and it is this that prompted me to conduct the proof of concept experiment of digital detox that became the basis of this book.
Over the space of several years and with some effort, I eventually came to see that if I tried to go beyond the normative understanding of time, guided by a range of philosophers and artists such as Marcel Proust and Henri Bergson, then I might gain some insight into the nature of the specific problem of time within the network society. What these thinkers and writers taught me was that I was losing much more than the measured hours of the day to the online sinkhole – I was losing myself. I learned from them that the essence of time is the experience of time. Essentially, if our experience of time is dominated or deeply inflected by connectivity, then the subjective experience is going to be one of a constant present, of living in the perpetual moment of being always on and always available.
I live on the coast in the south-western part of Melbourne. Our family’s white clapboard house is quite close to a spot where the massive West Gate Bridge stretches high over the Yarra River, casting its long shadow over the water just where it flows out into Port Philip Bay. The bridge connects our neighbourhood to the city centre and, further on, by way of the popularly-despised tollway express, to the traditionally more upmarket eastern and southern suburbs across the bay. With an enclosed sea area of nearly 200 square kilometres, Port Phillip Bay is extremely large, so much so that it stretches, often choppily, way out from Melbourne City to beyond the horizon. When its length is finally exhausted, its water opens onto an always turbulent Bass Strait at a narrow and shoal-filled neck called ‘The Rip’, which is a triangular area of water between the land points of Point Nepean, Shortlands Bluff and Point Lonsdale.
That little topography lesson consisted of facts I sort of knew about, but I had to look them up to make sure, because I never thought much about what existed beyond my immediate physical environs. Yet, you can live in a street, in a town, and know very little about it apart from its barest facts. You might not know much, for example, about its distinctive features, its rhythms, its eccentricities, its human and natural ecologies. It’s a cliché that we no longer know our neighbours. But is it even accurate to call those living close to us neighbours any longer? Neighbours. The term evokes an arms-folded-over-a-shared-fence familiarity, where you chat about the weather, problems with slugs, how to attract more bees, or about old Ray from four doors down, who hasn’t been seen since Monday, and so one of us will knock on his door to make sure he’s ok. Digital life relieves us of that particular social burden, too. And old Ray could have had a heart-attack in the meantime. In terms of our ability to manage information, this is the zero-sum game once more. Instagram, the mobile phone, Facebook’s newsfeed, the black hole for time that is Netflix, and all the rest, take away the time for getting to know who’s in the street.
Digital life can exact a psychic toll, furnishing consequences that we give little thought to, because we are ‘too busy’ or if we are more honest, too distracted. One consequence is what Paul Virilio, writing about computers and the speeding up of life, called ‘a fundamental loss of orientation’. I take this to mean a lack of spatial awareness: a state of not really paying any attention, real attention, to where you live, or to what is immediately around you. If we no longer know our neighbours, then full-on digital life will see to it that we know less about our neighbourhood as well.
The general lack of spatial awareness is connected to the lack of temporal awareness. And so, I know my street and my suburb primarily as point A, which is the starting point to a point B, which could be anywhere from my university office, 21 kilometres away, to my mum’s house in Wishaw, near Glasgow, which Google tells me is 16,965 kilometres to the north-west. Point A, my house, my street, is just a coordinate to the digitally toxified mind. It’s a space (not a place) to travel from in order to go somewhere else, to another coordinate, this time more appropriately a coordinate, because it is, by definition, not where you live; a space unknown. My usual A-to-B travel is, like that of most people, the daily commute to work. I do it by bicycle, which has the meagre advantage of allowing me the conceit of being able to feel superior to the texting and talking and even laptop-using souls lurching along in the fuming columns of traffic.
In many ways, the bike has been a liberator. If you do it for long enough, then the process – the actual travelling and direction-finding bits, like the intricate balance that is required to ride the thing in the first place – becomes automatic. Even riding in traffic becomes subconscious. The conscious mind is then freed in that commuting time; freed from intrusive media, vacuous radio stations, too loud music, or chattering passengers, so as to think. This is when you can have your best thoughts. To work out problems, little or big. When cycling, I go into a headspace I rarely go to any other time. Often, I’ll have flashes of insight into something I’ve been thinking about, a sudden awareness that can seem so important at the time, that I’ll pull over, reach into my pocket for a notebook and pencil, or iPhone, and record it. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I become all-knowing and omnipotent on my bike. Just as often, I’ll look later at what I’ve written or said, and wonder the hell I was thinking about. But that’s another story.
Being on the bike can resurrect the spatial experience as well as the temporal. It can give you more of a connection with the physical route from A to B. I remember as a kid when I first went out into the countryside with a bike. The shimmering summer roads looked and felt beautiful as I rolled along on my bright red Raleigh, which was a girl’s bike, but my mum got it for free from somewhere, so what can you do? But the roads also smelled awful, smelled of something you couldn’t really define until you stopped for a rest. Then you realised: it was roadkill decomposing in the heat. A hedgehog, or rabbit, or sometimes a brown fox that wasn’t quick enough and had been clattered by a vehicle: each or any knocked aside to die randomly, anonymously – an everyday death registered only by the crows. It’s impossible to get that acute sense-awareness when thundering through the landscape in a car or bus. Travelling through Spain in 1937 whilst covering the Spanish Civil War, Ernest Hemingway preferred the two-wheeled, self-powered mode to get around the various battlefronts. He did this not only because he was more inconspicuous to snipers that way, camouflaged with the accoutrement of a local peasant, but also because it attached him to a geography he needed to know more deeply – in order to understand it more and so to survive it better:
It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus, you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.
The 21-kilometre journey to my office doesn’t have any contours to sweat up or to coast down. It is pan-flat. And neither does it offer much in the way of physical danger, beyond, that is, the probabilistic hazards that all cyclists face in built-up areas from drunken, or speeding, or texting, or distracted drivers. What part of my route positively glows with, though, is a very particular aura of mystery and exoticism and promise that probably escapes the preoccupied drivers travelling from A to B and back again.
The route I take down Footscray Road runs alongside Swanson Dock, the biggest container-shipping terminal in Australia. It is about the same size as the Kobe terminal in Japan, which is the third biggest in that country. So, it’s massive. Growling lines of semi-trailers, those types built specially for containers, constantly come and go from its several large gates, cutting across the main road into the city as they go, thereby adding significantly to the stop-go traffic problem. It also has a railway line butting right up against it, so containers can be lifted straight from the ship, parked onto the quayside for a bit, and then quickly yanked up again and then dropped onto a waiting train that will deliver them to anywhere in the country. That part of it, the 24/7 loading and unloading, and the constant computerised choreography between container and crane in all weather and with hardly a human in sight, is fairly interesting, I suppose. It’s part of the high-tech cutting edge of the container revolution that since the 1970s has transformed the planet – utterly. Today, computer centres and computerised machines, working in tandem with computerised ships with skeleton crews of perhaps only 25 people, deliver 90 per cent of everything that surrounds us, from the computer I write these words with to the car that will take me to the shops to buy all kinds of stuff that consumer life now demands. I’ll talk a little bit more about this process later. But what really fascinates me and still causes me to look contemplatively through the traffic haze towards the docks, is the container carriers themselves: those beautiful, sometimes rusting, sometimes newly-painted, always massive, differently liveried and logoed vessels (as they are properly called) that float patiently under cranes busily going about their non-stop Lego-like stacking and unstacking routines.
Almost every day I see a new line of them; blue or grey or orange vessels tied up with their sterns facing the road. Like a trainspotter, I’ll often stop my bike and walk over to the security fence to peer through. They are so close to Footscray Road that you can easily make out the vessel’s name, let’s say it’s the AS Magnolia, and its ‘flag of convenience’, which for many of them, including this one, is Monrovia, a city in Liberia, and whose flag (which looks a bit like the US Stars and Stripes) it will fly. The flag of convenience is used, of course, to save money. The shipping company will pay less tax if they list the vessel in a tax haven that it has probably no intention of ever visiting. This is not so interesting. What does provoke interest, though, is that the vessel I’m looking at as I squint through the wire has just come from somewhere, with the aura of a distant place still enveloping it, and it will soon disappear from its berth at Number 4 Dock to travel, at an average speed of 17 knots, to somewhere else, somewhere not here, and therefore somewhere necessarily mysterious and exotic.
Now admittedly, in about twenty seconds I could have checked on my iPhone to see where the AS Magnolia has come from, how long it will be here for, and for where it is destined. But what would be the use of that? The aura and the enigma would evaporate, and I’d be back on my bike, with the act of stopping, or even looking, rendered pointless. But if you put yourself in a particular frame of mind, then those container ships, those vessels that we all have seen but barely gave a thought to, reveal themselves to be actually something rather special. The idiom ‘like a ship in the night’ kind of touches on what I mean. It’s the sense that container ships arrive largely unnoticed, and then steal away in just the same fashion. It’s as if the ship and its crew don’t actually exist. They are ghost ships with a ghost crew, both of whom you never see. Ship and crew are otherworldly in that they don’t form part of normal life in the way that other forms of transport do, such as cars and buses and even aeroplanes. Neither do they form part of the time of the world and the routines that govern it.
Passing these phantoms every day and, importantly, noticing them and thinking about them, I began slowly to see them as a possible antithesis to digital life and its information overload. The vague idea began to grow in me around mid-2017, that a container ship could be a perfect place, one of the few relatively comfortable places, indeed, where I could try the self-experiment in digital detox.
Excerpts copyright Robert Hassan, Chapter 1, p. 20 and Chapter 3, pp. 67-73.
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