Andrew Brown goes offline
Monday July 10, 2006
Outside this window the shadow of a buzzard swerves across a bright grass lawn. It's very distracting, and for a while I just stare, distracted. After a while, a car goes past. Silence again. Something moves in the shadow of the bushes with a jerky, almost regular rhythm, and I watch that, carefully, too, until it resolves itself into a wagtail's tail.
This is what's known among writers as thinking, and when a writeable thought does appear in my mind, as startling and unbidden as a bird, I write it down.
The window is the quicklime in which these thoughts are caught. It hardly matters what it should look out on. It is a pity that the particular view I am watching is suffused for me with a loneliness and a sense of abandonment more terrible than anything I have felt since I was eight years old and newly sent to boarding school. But even that is better and more productive than the internet. I still have silence and a window to stare out of, not a connection to stare into.
I am coming to suspect that the internet will be to my generation of journalists, and to any younger ones, what alcohol was to our predecessors': a destroyer first of thought and then of productivity, destructive both of the capacity to reflect, and to react, blurring everything into a haze of talk and endlessly repeated variations on the same experience. Just like alcohol, and even cigarettes once were, it seems an inevitable part of the job, one of the things that distinguishes it from all others. Stories are chased and found on the net just as they once were in bars.
This won't kill journalism, or thought, of course. There were always many journalists who functioned drunk, and some who could not function any other way. Stupidity, sloppiness, bias, inelegance - all these are charges which might be raised against a journalistic opponent, and fairly. But drunkenness is of no interest unless it contributes to other professional sins. The trouble is that it very often does. For every hack who really did or does get more out of the bottle than the bottle gets out of them (and I can think of a couple of distinguished contemporaries), there are perhaps three times as many whose lives, and those of their families, were wrecked by the stuff, and far more who could have been much more interesting and energetic if only they hadn't looked for every story through the bottom of a glass.
Looking for stories through a screen has much the same effect. It's not all bad; neither was drink. The internet, like alcohol, brings spontaneity and conversation to the writer: often the illusion of wit, and sometimes its substance. But it never ever brings you silence, and it makes it far too easy to escape from the necessary boring solitude of the job. Obviously, no one ever went into journalism in search of boring solitude. In fact it is a profession unusually attractive to people with overactive, playful minds and short attention spans.
Alcohol is attractive partly because it damps down the natural exuberance of such minds; the internet seems to encourage it and liberate from the mundane altogether.
Either way, the effect is often terribly destructive. To hold my thoughts in solitary confinement is the only way to force them to the hard labour of sentences.
Pure application just won't do it. Though quite a lot of editing and even some sorts of writing are a lot like the mindless drudgery of programming - where you know from the beginning what you must say and are just filling out the blanks in a scheme very well understood from the beginning - very little that's not written to an immediate purpose is. There needs to be a shadow swerving unexpectedly across the lawn to show you where to go; and this is not true just at the beginning of a piece of writing, but at intervals all the way through. An extraordinarily high proportion of writing time consists of waiting until you can see, or hear what's wrong with the words in front of you; this is not a process that can be hurried.
Windows, like books, have edges. The shadows swerves across, gives life, and then it's gone. But the internet has no edges, any more than it has depth. The sudden movement of someone else's thought across a screen is something you can follow far beyond the room in which your thoughts could be confined. There's no tether to jerk you back and by the time your thoughts return, the room has changed: whatever lay in front of the next sentence has disappeared. And so I sit now in a room with a window and no telephone, waiting for the next sentence, patient and pious as a dried-out drunk.