Tuesday, 10 September 2013

‘Back to Reality’ — 14 Days Without Twitter (the Search for Self-Knowledge)

How a family holiday, a cult comedy and sexism led to a fortnight without Twitter.

There’s a cult sci-fi comedy show which used to air on the BBC called Red Dwarf. The title’s taken from the name given to a mining vessel marooned in deep space, its rag tag crew of obsessive compulsive android, vain mutant feline, cowardly hologram and lone remaining human, bumble their way from one alien encounter to another, discovering new species, new dimensions and futuristic technologies. It’s like Star Trek but for idiots!

Except that in its finer moments the show isn’t really for idiots at all. It can, in fact, be quite profound. I was recently brought to mind of perhaps its most loved episode, ‘Back to Reality’, in which all crew members hallucinate that, rather than being stranded in an over-sized tin can in the far reaches of the cosmos, they’ve been playing an extremely elaborate form of virtual reality computer game back home on Earth. Not only that but they’ve been playing it badly!

When confronted with what they believe to be reality, they don’t feel relieved nor delighted to have finally returned to Earth — that which they’ve been endlessly striving for —rather they become so depressed and disillusioned with each of their own personal realities that they decide to commit collective suicide. Thankfully, of course, the effects of the hallucinogen wear off just before they manage to do so.

Before journeying on family holiday to the rural wilderness of Dartmoor in the UK county of Devon, I’d been struck by two unrelated tweets which, together with the trolling of female journalists following Caroline Criado-Perez’s successful campaign to install the image of a woman — author Jane Austen — on the Bank of England’s ten pound note, pricked my, until then, unbridled belief in Twitter as a universally good thing.

The first missive — the exact 140 characters of which escape me now — suggested a futility in filling your Twitter feed with the musings of those who share your outlook on life. ‘Does it not somewhat narrow your horizons?’ the tweet suggested. ‘Does it not render Twitter nothing more than an enormous echo chamber?’

The second tweet opined that perhaps for most of us Twitter is tantamount to screaming into an empty pint glass, not only for those sexists venting their fury at successful, unobtainable women but also for those attempting to be creative, share knowledge or add to humanity’s collective understanding (this is a lot to cram into two tweets I grant you but the implication was clear).

After all, the intellectual rigour and wit of Oscar Wilde at his pithiest could easily be lost to the ether were he followed solely by Jedward. More tragically, were he to forget to append the #justsaying hashtag.

These tweets and the cacophony of horrific abuse re-tweeted by the female journalists and writers I follow triggered in me a long unconscious thought: ‘Am I really making any contribution to universal understanding through my tweets or merely adding to the incessant din? Am I just subconsciously patting myself on the back from within my own tiny cyber-clique? Am I, like the worst of the trolls, attempting in vain to dissuade the fear of my own infinite insignificance?’

What a wonderful feeling it was to spend a prolonged period of time without tweeting. Living life, loving my wife, playing with my child, joking with family friends and experiencing the simple pleasures of the countryside in the summertime.

A trip to the zoo, hopping over stepping stones in the river Dart, making sandcastles for the boys, cooking pancakes for breakfast, cricket in the garden and talking. Talking to real, live people…in a room…in a cottage…in the middle of nowhere.

For a while, I thought I’d had an epiphany. I could just forget about writing anything ever again, forget reading, never post another puerile tweet for the rest of my days. Live! Live in tactile reality apart from the digital dissonance of the online community. I could do it. Of course I could do it! I’d gone 14 days, why not 140? Why not forever!?

Those first few tweets on my return from holiday were painful. I detested myself even as I tapped the areas of my phone screen designed to look like keys on a keyboard. In the halcyon Neverland of a summer holiday it was easy to resist the caterwauling. In the monotonous mangle of the daily commute it was impossible to ignore.

I’m unable to quit Twitter, I realise this now. Not only do I have an inherent need to express my opinions, hopefully in a creative and informative way, but I also feel it’s a duty to do so as a human being. To somehow, in some small way at least, attempt to add value, even if it blurs the lines between my ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ reality; even if, ultimately, my thoughts (hopefully not screamed) travel no further than the bottom of the empty pint glass.

The alternative is to leave Twitter to the ignorant — not an option based on the abhorrent sexism currently evident across the site — and therefore admit a total defeat. I suppose, in a manner of speaking, to be a Twitter quitter is to turn ones back on society itself and I, for one, am not ready to indulge in so morose an act as that very nearly undertaken by the crew of Red Dwarf.

Twitter, like Red Dwarf, is for idiots! Except,in its finer moments, it isn’t really for idiots at all.

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