Last week, a friend of mine posted a telling comment beneath an article I’d linked to on Facebook (a review of a book that urges us to temper the time we spend on social networks with more, and better, face to face contact).
“I’d be off here in a heartbeat if I’d not somehow managed to build a career out of being on it.”
“And that’s why our entire generation is pretty much fucked.”
An arch throwaway comment. Except it wasn’t. Not really.
I hit puberty during the Western middle-classes’ first flush of love with the World Wide Web. I have been one of its moistest-lipped, dryest-eyed maenads ever since I realised that my father’s vast grey Gateway — when helmed by that grumbling, burping wizard they called AOL — could bear me away to thousands of lush isles, each one harbouring a lawless tribe that thrived on comic books and trashy American sci-fi and generally anything that didn’t go down too well in a mid-nineties Oxfordshire all-girls’ school.
Eager to continue my commitment to cliché, I began my adult life as a failed and anorexic actress in London, honing skills that were to put me in excellent stead for future digital-native-success: a devotion to isolation; an induction into the heady joys of perfectionism and control; disassociation from my body; fetishisation of my mind; and a rigorous training in offering more digestible versions of myself to a vague, omnipotent and tantalisingly glamorous authority.
In 2006, I became a social media marketer, although back then the term was yet to be invented; the job description was for a copywriter, because my boss figured that the future lay in the hands of nerds who were good at using (written, not spoken, obvs) words to woo other nerds. I also became a writer, by starting a Wordpress blog and pitching ideas to editors, who knew a ripe young piece of troll-bait when they saw one.
I grew with the industry. I taught blue-chips how to use ‘emotional triggers’ to develop ‘authentic’ relationships with their ‘communities.’ I became something of an athlete at churning out 6–800 words on Twitter and books, Facebook and fashion, sensuality and Snapchat. I gave speeches around the world on innovation and business; the token double-X chromosome on the stage, dropping the f-bomb from behind my coy smile and good hair.
And then, at the grand age of thirty-two, I —
Well, I suppose I grew up.
I grew healthy and strong.
I learned how to love, and allow myself to be loved; that taught me to value not only the rich, irreducible complexity of what it means to be me, but the rich, irreducible complexity of what it means to be someone else.
I wrote a novel (coming soon); that taught me how to disconnect, how to pay attention to things and people for more than ten seconds, and how to think. Intermittently, admittedly; but boy, did it feel good.
I read with sharpening hunger, the words of a growing collection of thinkers who are both fascinated and appalled by our digital age — novelists such as William Gibson and Joshua Ferris; technologists such as Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr; psychologists such as Susan Pinker and Sherry Turkle; philosophers such as Matthew Crawford and Alain de Botton.
And I admitted that I am, in fact, not just a person but a woman. That I like being a woman. And that I don’t have to learn to code in order to earn the right to question the design of my world.
Maybe you have a job that involves responding to emails for the majority of the day. Maybe you hate Facebook, love Twitter and don’t understand Snapchat. Maybe you bitch about couples who sit silently behind their phones in restaurants, then spend your evening slumped on the sofa second-screening Game of Thrones.
Maybe you gobble positive psychology and self-development books like The Happiness Hypothesis and The 4 Hour Work Week. Maybe you check your devices first thing in the morning and last thing at night and, when you turn them off on holiday, maybe you get ill.
Maybe you’re convinced that you’re about to become the hero of your own life by finally hitting on that instantly scalable startup, or finishing that conveniently filmic fantasy. Maybe, in the heat of your conviction, you jump up from your chair, have a good stretch, make a coffee, then spend an hour leaning against the kitchen counter, browsing Instagram.
No, hang on, that’s me again.
But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
Tossing my hardware into the Thames and pulling a Walden is not a viable option, however lovely my Pinterest board of Orkney bothies has become. That would be an escape, not an answer. I don’t want to be a dinosaur, but nor do I want to be a drone.
I still believe that social technologies can be an incredible force for good, not to mention fun. But I also think it’s time we started looking seriously, and publicly, at the unsustainable assumptions that underpin them, and the toll they take on our identities and our world.
What does a good life, and a good career, look like for a generation of lonely professional networkers, bored social media executives and cyber-shamed digital gurus? A generation whose experiences have been relentlessly curated by corporations, and whose personal lives are barely extricable from their personal brands?
Might there even be a way for such a generation to use the schizophrenic perspective and bizarre skills this era has given them to improve it from within?
Answers on a Twitter card.