By Luke Rollason.
Illustration by Michael Julings.
I’m going to say it - I am a technophobe. I am also a hypocrite who can happily cohabitate with their unease over their digital addiction whilst still getting their kicks from its perks. But self-isolation can make us look at many things from a different perspective - whether that’s technology, baked beans, or peeing in my own sink.
And no matter how much of a sceptic you are about technology (and I am), it’s a massive relief right now. It’s a relief to contact faraway friends and to access each other’s work remotely. There’s plenty that I’ve taken for granted here, which I am learning deep gratitude for, to levels unseen since the first time since I discovered Bebo (Year 9, Luke Rollason: Total Legend ‘07).
That’s not what I’m writing about. Let’s not argue, for a moment, about whether or not the internet is our lifeline and if that might be a Bad Thing. People have a right to be defensive about their screen time right now because life without it compares pretty unfavourably to life with it. With limited access to the outdoors and to each other, it’s not much of a fair fight.
But I think it would be a serious mistake if what we learned about ourselves after this was that we needed the internet all along. I hope instead that our attempts to find online substitutes for what we’ve lost leads us to re-examine our relationship to technology when we reunite with the real world. Because if what we find online to replace it is not a poor substitute, then how low are our expectations of reality? What is it, exactly, that we are missing?
I’ve been thinking about performing, which in my calendar served as social engagement, entertainment and weekly structure, not to mention source of income (although I was once paid for a gig in potatoes, which at the time was an outrage, but now they are worth their weight in supermarket queue-times). For me, gigs are one example of something tangible I now miss. But despite many memorable exceptions, the image I remember most clearly, repeated again and again, is a row of comedians sat at the back of a gig, waiting for their turn or to go home, scrolling through their phones. Longing to be somewhere else.
Longing is inherent to digital experience. It’s why it’s so compelling - an unending trail of breadcrumbs promising to lead us to gingerbread. And that promise is more delicious the more dissatisfying your life feels, which in a sad paradox creates the feedback loop where your screen addiction becomes better than the world you are neglecting, and you’re scared to log out. But my real life only feels dull in comparison to my screen life when I am totally absorbed with the latter. And doesn’t that mean that the latter just makes me feel miserable and dissatisfied, even as it absorbs me? That it creates the expectation of satisfaction but provides the feeling of want?
The last gig I was booked for before everything shut down was cancelled by the time I arrived. In fact, it had been cancelled hours before, but I hadn’t seen the performers’ Facebook chat so I went, like a moron, and insisted that I was ready to gig to the adoring crowd of folding chairs. Instead, me and the promoter and two other comedians sat and drank the last of the beer in the closing bar before its indefinite lockdown. It was inconvenient. It was so worth it.
This wasn’t a plan the four of us would have made intentionally because we look at the world differently when distanced from it. Digital design creates that distance - it's what allows us the perspective and tools to maintain busy and rewarding lives - but it is invested in maintaining that distance, too.
Now, alone with our technology, we should be able to wrestle with and face once and for all what it is we want, and whether the internet can give it to us. I’m not trying to make us feel worse about our lives. But I think it is worth us finding out.
For the record, what I think we are finding out is that we took human experiences very much for granted, and that in a post-pandemic world we should radically revalue the world beyond our screens.
If this is an example of “you don't know what you've got ‘til it’s gone”, then if we are lucky enough to get a second chance at reality, we owe it to ourselves to reach for it with freer hands, hearts, and minds.