Back before the internet became the norm – and before homes had a family PC as standard – finding the answer to a question meant consulting your mum and dad, asking your friends, schlepping to the library or infuriating your mother as you pulled book after book off her lovingly alphabetised bookshelves (where, in my case, lay rows of early 90s magazine series Find Out More, all neatly filed away into the bright yellow binders that accompanied the collection – the go-to for homework throughout secondary school).
If none of these resources could answer your question, well, tough. You were doomed to spend your days floating through life wondering why the sky was blue, what kind of dog that was in your neighbour’s garden, or what Ronan Keating’s middle name was (Patrick John, FYI).
Nowadays, of course, it’s possible to answer just about any question in the world in a matter of seconds, providing your phone has juice and a data connection. How frequently phones are pulled out of pockets in restaurants to find out what ‘crevette’ means, or on the sly in cinemas because you know you recognise the supporting actress from somewhere but you just can’t think where and you need to know right NOW.
We have at our fingertips instant access to the sum total of all human knowledge, and while that’s obviously great news for us as species, it can get a bit knackering. We’re plugged in and switched on 24/7 and our brains are careening through life at a thousand miles a minute, processing a seemingly unending tide of information. That’s why, when my boyfriend and I decided to escape to rural west Wales for a couple of days, we were simultaneously delighted and horrified at the prospect of 48 hours without connection to life as we know it. There was no mobile phone signal, no data, no WiFi, no TV – not even a radio. We were entirely off the grid.
The silence – both literal and metaphorical – was unsettling. We’re both so used to having a presence in multiple spaces at once – real life and online – that to suddenly be chucked headfirst into the present without the fleeting, superficial distractions of viral content or social media was jarring. Truth be told, after we’d explored our cosy cabin, made dinner, read by the fire and played Scrabble (which was no cakewalk without access to an up-to-date dictionary), there was very much an element of ‘what now?’ Usually we’d put Netflix on, or read the headlines, or search for upcoming events, quite content in the quiet company of one another – and our smartphones, of course – while our thumbs scrolled fervently and our brains glazed over.
But like any addiction, the cravings eventually wore off. We spent time creating meals, enjoying the outdoors, reading and talking. Not the usual everyday chitchat about work and friends, but meaningful conversation about ideas and concepts, our beliefs and opinions. For a brief and wonderful period, we were living entirely in the ‘now’. Without the distractions of the outside world blasted into our consciousness through 5.5” screens it felt like time slowed down. Every time we wanted to consult Google about something we just noted it down for later. We didn’t need to know the Egyptian prime minister’s first name or Ellie Goulding’s age right there and then – it could wait.
We were still in this heady state of mindfulness when we went for a jaunt to the nearest village and decided to pop into the pub for a pint of the local thing. Pushing open the heavy oak door revealed a cosy country watering hole: dark wood furniture, a ramshackle collection of local sports paraphernalia, an old dog by the bar, a roaring log fire – and a group of punters gathered around a TV, mouths agape. Nobody said a word, until the woman behind the bar murmured quietly, ‘It’s terrible, isn’t it?’
What was terrible? We had absolutely no idea. Then the rolling headlines on the BBC news broadcast revealed exactly what we’d missed, and our blissful bubbles of ignorance were burst: seven coordinated terror attacks in Paris had killed at least 129 people and injured hundreds more.
This was 24 hours later – the facts of the attack had by then largely been established. For us there had been no mounting horror as news of the events unfurled on social media. There had been no interruptions to scheduled TV to let us know that something was happening. We hadn’t been drip-fed any information as reporters got it. We had suddenly been confronted with this horrific news with none of the warm up and fan fare that news in the digital world affords – just as those were switching on their televisions for the 6pm news during 9/11, or reading the morning’s papers after 7/7.
It felt unreal – more so because our digital isolation meant we couldn’t participate in the global conversation that was now taking place. Had there been any more updates? What were the authorities saying? And then, such is our voyeuristic relationship with news these days: were there any eyewitness accounts? Have any survivors made a statement? And ultimately, what could we do to help?
Of course, there was nothing we could do to help. There was nothing my friends back in the city – connected to the outside world as they were – could do to help. All they could do was watch with horror as the story developed. But we couldn’t, thanks to our digital detox. Instead, we went back to the cabin and sat in stunned silence for a little while, processing the terrible news.
The way we consume news has changed beyond recognition over the last decade. News bulletins and newspapers are no longer enough. In our digital world of ‘more, now’ we’ve been programmed to hungrily seek out new and additional information, to add our voices to the conversation, to vociferously debate among ourselves. On this rollercoaster of constant stimulation we have little time to process the facts as we know them before adding a new piece of information to the equation: whether that be an official statement, the opinion of someone you went to school with, or – increasingly – information that has become muddied in the waters of social media that turns out to be false.
Is this progress? On one hand, yes, of course. On the other, I’m not sure. Isolated as we were in that rural cabin we had no choice but to mull over the few headlines we’d seen, debate the matter rationally and evenly between ourselves, and take time to really process the extent of the atrocity. This meant that when we finally got in range of a data connection again, we were able to more calmly assimilate the new facts and information without becoming distracted by the hysterical shouting and drum-banging that had already engulfed the web – coming back to Facebook and Twitter with fresh eyes was shocking.
Would I have wanted constant news updates? Minute-by-minute ‘live’ reporting? It would have certainly made me feel more connected to the event, and less isolated in my shock and horror: being part of the digital community is like being part of an (albeit dysfunctional) family, where shared experiences create bonds and heal hurt. But as demonstrated by the brief window of peace I enjoyed earlier in the weekend, this connectivity isn’t necessarily better for our mental wellbeing, nor is it beneficial in creating a solid foundation of understanding from which to consider facts and opinions carefully and objectively.
The way we consume news has changed both for the better and the worse. We’re more clued up on global events than ever before, but, in the words of Spiderman, with this power comes responsibility. We owe it to ourselves and our global family to take the time to properly process events so that they become meaningful, rather than getting swept along in a tide of irrelevant ranting and misinformation. Being online as a drama unfolds feels like getting lost in the pixels, when sometimes we should be looking at the whole picture.
Image © iStock/mampfred