Canterbury remarked to Ms Kuenssberg on Sunday morning that we live in a very unforgiving age. You make a mistake, he said, and you are absolutely… I could see him searching for a word. I consulted the thesaurus of the imagination and addressed the television screen. Vilified? Demolished? Cancelled?
Ms K remarked that it was a good joke, and Canterbury, with a trace of a smile, said that it probably wasn’t very funny at the time. It crossed my mind that the brief exchange, making somewhat light of Golgotha, might come back to haunt him. It is ironic that he might become an exemplar of the very point he was trying to make. The Pharisees might take umbrage and crucify him.
But he’s right. We live in a pharisaic age. One strike and you’re out. You make a mistake – actually you don’t even need to err, you just need to voice an opinion at odds with the zeitgeist – and the Pharisees will trap you. They might not do it to your face. The generation of vipers has moved on line, trolls trawling the surf, surfing the net, vigilantes on the lookout for misdemeanour, much like the Morality Police.
There’s a simple solution: switch off the computer, and live your life off-line. Of course the irony of this statement is that I am making it, sitting at a computer composing a piece which I will shortly post on-line. It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is nothing intrinsically good or evil about the digital world; it’s what you do with it that counts. All technical innovations in the field of communications have suffered a reactionary response, from the printing press to the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television, mass media, the movies, the world wide web, and now… Facebook, Instagram, TikTok…
In West Stirlingshire on Friday morning we woke to six inches of snow. I wrapped up, took a flask of coffee, braved the blizzards, and walked down to Flanders Moss where the blanket of white was completely pristine, save for the prints of deer and rabbit. The world was left to nature and to me. There is a beautiful sentence in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native…
The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind.
Who needs a digital “platform”?
Luddite? Well, the critical thing is that you remain in control of the on/off switch. Recall that in 1984, Winston Smith could turn the volume on the telescreen down, but he could not turn it off. The evil thing about social media is that people, especially young people, feel compelled to stay connected. They are addicted, much as they might be addicted to cigarettes, or opiates. Addiction is not an accidental phenomenon. The entrepreneurs in any business enterprise that thrives on addiction will purify and refine the agent of addiction such that the lag time to the state of dependence is quicker, the “high” headier, the time lapse to need for a booster dose quicker. The movers and shakers understand what sort of material will grab your attention, and hold it, keeping you glued to a smartphone screen.
I’m very fortunate that I’m not vulnerable to such enticements. It is as incomprehensible to me as gambling addiction. But I mustn’t be a prig. I’m as prone to addictive ruin as anybody. I’m partial to an Islay single malt, and fond of the occasional Cuban cigar. It’s as well both commodities are hellishly expensive. Incidentally, I was perturbed that the New Zealand government are outlawing tobacco for everybody born after January 1st. 2009. Every time you think you are about to attain the age of responsibility, the Beehive in Wellington moves the goalposts. Terrible idea. They’ve just created a new black market. I digress.
So I’m not convinced by this truism that the digital world is morally neutral. You have to assess any human activity, not by what it could be, but by what it actually is. The fact is that the promise of connectivity is a lie. With each new digital technical innovation we dig ourselves deeper into our entrenched individual silos, content to listen to nothing but the voices in our own echo chamber. Steven Spielberg remarked the other day on Desert Island Discs that he much preferred the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen in a film theatre, to watching it on a smartphone. Why? Because you shared the experience with a community whose individuals might hold views quite different from your own; yet a shared experience offered a possibility of connection, within that community.
With this in mind I braved the icy conditions yesterday and went into Glasgow to play my viola in a ceremony of lessons and carols. I’ve been taking part in this particular gig for years, thanks to the kind and generous invitation of my hosts. With the pandemic, the last time we met up we had to be on-line. Such a relief this year to be back in the real world. The church in the west end is unusual in all sorts of ways, not least that, certainly for the lessons and carols, the audience was large and unusually heterogeneous, particularly in age range. You seldom see such variety in churches or concert halls, in which the grey-haired audience is fast becoming white-haired. Who will be attending such events a decade from now? Where is the next generation? Are they all wired up to their devices?