I’m sitting in a room, looking out a perfectly round window. In the distance, there’s Red Hill with its restaurant perched on top. The sky is a gun-metal grey, and the clouds hang low. It could be cold, or it could be humid—it depends how close the rain is. This has been a strange December. The weather can’t make up its mind.
It’s incredibly quiet, just me and my MacBook, curled up on the couch. My thoughts haven’t been this uninterrupted for twelve months. The silence, because I am listening to it, feels loud. I lean into it, mentally, needing it, craving an emphatic absence of stimulus.
For several days I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts for this essay on my year of living connectedly. But the year of living connectedly has taken its toll. I find my mind hard to still. It darts off chasing new stimuli. I’m like one of our cats, the younger one, who is a bit mad. She’s obsessed with chasing light. She darts around chasing reflections, or small insects, but mainly light. If the light doesn’t present itself she’ll sit and yowl for it. The children are now experts at catching the sun with their fork at dinner, or sometimes we get the torch. She’ll leap right up the wall chasing the light. After a while she seems ashamed of the futility of chasing a phantom, and sulks.
It’s very hard to stop and think. I have many plausible excuses for distraction. Must complete those last-minute writing commissions for my newspaper; the columns I still need to file. Preparations I need to make for the federal election next year, which will make the professional demands of this year look miniscule. A trip to Charters Towers chasing Bob Katter. End-of-school. Award nights. Last basketball game for the ten-year-old. Report cards. Shopping. The annual December rush.
But that’s not the primary problem. The fact is I’m burned out, overstimulated. A mind fuse has blown. Yet I’m still chasing the inputs. I keep glancing at my smartphone, even when it’s switched to silent. I can see the subtle vibration each time a new piece of correspondence arrives. Its constancy is implacable. I’m on a travelator and I can’t get off.
Technology is pitching us all headlong into the crowd. An invisible throng mills around us all the time. If you’ve got the devices to plug you into the grid, then connectedness is now the default. Being constantly linked in is now an expectation, not an exception—a profound occupational, social and cultural shift. A social media conversation rolls 24/7. The emails roll 24/7. The news cycle thunders 24/7. Friends, followers, networks.
It’s happened very fast, and I sense there is no going back. This wasn’t something we chose. We didn’t have a conversation about this as a culture and reflect on the pros and cons. The shift has been iterative, we’ve upgraded and experimented and early adopted our way to crowd-dwelling.
We are boiling frogs, chained to our devices, socialised to see relentlessness as the norm. And there’s no turning back.
My year of living connectedly began in my imagination long before it began in practice. My profession, journalism, is in the middle of a profound revolution. Aron Pilhofer, who runs the New York Times Interactive, a collaboration between computer coders and journalists that produces some of the richest data journalism in the world, observed recently this could be a golden age, or end times—none of us really know.1
That uncertainty is stressful self-evidently, but it is also galvanising. It’s prompted many of us to fight for our craft and to think deeply about ways of renewing it and sustaining it. I thought for much of 2011 about these questions, and about what I could do in my own small way in terms of productive experimentation.
Towards the end of the year I resolved to transit out of daily newspaper journalism to digital. Given I’m a sentimental type, and not a natural geek, this decision was quite emotional. (I’m not a gadget type. I drive a ten-year-old car. I still haven’t bought an iPad. I point-blank refuse to read a book on a Kindle.) But my view was I wanted to reinvent my journalism and do a live blog.2
This was a values-driven decision. I wanted a vehicle that would enable me to have a rolling conversation with an audience. I wanted to experiment with building a digital community. I wanted to wade out into the crowd, because that’s where journalism will renew its mandate: being of the community. I’m absolutely convinced of that. The days when journalists could lecture audiences are over. Technology has smashed the fantasy that one profession can in effect own the national affairs discourse. For me, this is a welcome development.
We need a new interaction with the audience. That doesn’t mean we don’t assert our knowledge, our views, our observations reporting events from the scene. This is a rich bounty we can give readers and viewers: being there first and foremost, and being authoritative—piercing the fog and the clutter.
Journalism, though it be deeply unfashionable, has never been more important, in my view. We shouldn’t wilt when a crowd gathers and concludes we paper tigers of the mainstream media are wrong. Sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes we are not wrong, we just aren’t popular. In any case, digital done well adds lustre and depth to journalism and storytelling.
I knew the live blog project would be intense. Politics moves at warp speed, particularly in this slightly unhinged forty-third parliament, the first minority government at the federal level since the Second World War. Everything is a sprint and a cacophony. Intensity was inevitable. I went out hard right from the start, posting updates on The Pulse Live every ten minutes or so.
‘Pulse very prolific,’ my husband chided gently in my inbox. (Damn straight it’s prolific, I concurred. That’s the point.) I ignored his implicit query about sustainability. There was a safety valve. I would only fire up the blog when parliament sat and on big political days. At that pace I thought it was manageable.
Covering events as they happen requires, I’ve discovered, fierce concentration. You have to be in the moment from start to finish. It’s a whole different way of working for a newspaper journalist, even a newspaper journalist used to filing online throughout the day.
Watch, listen, file. Watch, listen, file. Gather. Listen. Move in and out of the news cycle. Constant input, constant noise. But the hyper-attentiveness requires a stillness that’s possibly a bit like the silence in the eye of a hurricane.
My colleagues in Canberra watched on with bemusement. They laughed at my careening sprints to the bathroom between events. (Bathroom and coffee logistics became a significant preoccupation.) I’m sure they found me and my permanently preoccupied state a pain in the bum. But they also encouraged, aided and abetted—inside my own organisation and out. The community building wasn’t only online; colleagues in Canberra watched, sometimes participated, helped, critiqued. It was an experiment around which a number of us could rally.
It wasn’t only my work habits that were transformed. I moved desks twice in order to give myself the best ergonomic set-up. And there were the screens. Just one at the outset, then two. Then two plus a flat-screen TV. Then the MacBook came out on big days. Then Andrew—my photographer friend and Pulse Live co-conspirator—moved in. Another computer, another laptop, a video camera, all his stills cameras, an iPad mini better to transmit his pictures. Like Cape bloody Canaveral. Or the Starship Enterprise.
The project was gradually finding a house style and a rhythm. We found we could play around with time. We could pause in the moment and do some analysis. We could cut away and cover something that wasn’t main game. We could create on video.
It was always a battle to see who would drive whom, whether I would drive the blog or it me. I think the scorecard was about even. The audience came, particularly on big days, and bought in on the discussion. We fired up the conversation through social media, and created our own hashtag. It felt like we were winning. Journalistically speaking, if this was a battle between living and dying, then maybe we could bugger the doomsayers, and live.
Last year was a torrid year for Australian journalism. Newspaper redundancies took some of our best people. Cost-cutting ripped through commercial television as well. The long year of goodbye broke hearts. We went from writing, sometimes with cavalier brutality, about economic transformation and structural adjustment, to living it. And we just had to keep running, producing, despite the depletion.
Hyper-connectivity delivered me the great gift of Rupert Murdoch on Twitter. Rupert unplugged in 140 characters was magnificent: defiant, crotchety, idiosyncratic. Everything you’d hope for.
Except to me, he sounded lonely: sound bites from a throne room above a landscape of destruction. Staccato orders, breaking up on the wind. That phone hacking disaster in the United Kingdom. The cursed internet ripping into his hegemony. Rupert’s year of being lonely.
Perhaps we are all lonely. Perhaps that’s why we are steadily losing the art of being alone, of being disconnected, because it’s too frightening a concept to let go, to fall back into silence, to fall off the grid.
Rupert might be just periodically wondering where the old certainties went. For the rest of us, we are not only chasing the newest, snazziest technology, the latest upgrade, getting all factional about iPhone versus Android, setting up our personal YouTube channels, playing with the filters on Instagram—or shouting about Instagram selling our personal details—we are creating new ways to live.
Digital connectedness is an interesting type of community: a virtual one; one that condones, and in fact champions, multi-tasking. We can text each other while doing something else. We can tweet while buying a salad bowl from Ikea. A lot of my readers talked to me on the blog while pretending very convincingly to work. The environment tolerates ambivalence and non-commitment.
Digital connectedness is seductive because we have the comfort of the crowd and the knowledge we can keep the crowd at a distance. We are in control of those relationships. We can choose to be anonymous online if we want to. We can construct an identity different from our lived reality. We can throw rocks through windows in the form of abuse, we can reach out to others in community and solidarity, we can campaign against things we don’t approve of with a click of a button. And if we want to, we don’t have to meet anyone, talk to anyone, engage with anyone, empathise with anyone.
We are in the swim and at a distance, both practically and emotionally. It’s a fascinating thing, this connectedness and distance. Coexistent divided realities.
I met William Powers in the winter of 2011. Bill was a friend of my friend Matthew. He came to Canberra promoting his excellent book Hamlet’s BlackBerry. Of course I hadn’t read it when I met him. Who has the time to read a highly accessible piece of scholarship on the downsides of unchecked digital maximalism? Not me, anyway. No doubt I was too busy checking my emails, or tweeting from Ikea.
We had dinner with a couple of political friends I dragged out from their offices, because I thought they could use a turn in the fresh air. It was fresh all right—the air glittered with cold as it does on Canberra winter nights, with the blanket of stars high above and the mist beginning to peel off the frozen earth.
Bill, an American, once fell out of his boat into the ocean off Cape Cod. In the process he drowned his mobile phone. He tells the story in his book—the shock of abrupt disconnection:
Minutes later, heading back across the cove, I noticed something funny. It’s not anything I can see or hear. It’s an inner sensation, a subtle awareness. I’m completely unreachable.
Friends and family can’t reach me. Colleagues and contacts from my work life can’t reach me. Nobody anywhere on the planet can reach me right now, nor can I reach them. They’re out there in the great beyond, and short of Jedi-like telepathy, there’s no way of bridging the distance between us. Just minutes ago, I was embarrassed and angry at myself for drowning my phone.
Now it’s gone and connecting is no longer an option, I like what is happening.
Before I went overboard, I was alone in the boat, in the classic sense of being alone—there was no-one physically with me. But because I had a connective device in my pocket, in another sense I wasn’t alone at all. Everyone in my life was just a few button taps away.
Now I’m alone in a whole new way.3
Hamlet’s BlackBerry is all about setting healthy boundaries around connectedness. As we ate, Bill explained that his family disconnects from the web every weekend in order to prioritise being together. Otherwise how do you nurture your relationships—how do you buy yourself time to think?
I think we were all a little dumbfounded by this, our little party with our BlackBerrys unfurled unapologetically on the table. Particularly my political friends who never switch off, because switching off is not an option. My boss is calling one of them, in the middle of this dinner. They are always on the clock.
Bill is not the type of person who wants to talk endlessly about himself, so we segued off into other shared interests: politics, architecture, the future of journalism.
I read his book a year after our first meeting, around the time he and I met again—of course, on a Google+ Hangout. We laughed about meeting in this way, Bill in his Cape Cod study, me in my office in Canberra. Reunion via that wicked interwebz. (I suspect but don’t know that we might have breached the Powers family weekend disconnect—a true act of friendship for a fellow traveller.)
Bill, a former journalist, was by this point studying the impact of Twitter on the American presidential election campaign, and I wanted his insight for a special edition of the live blog we were doing for Obama versus Romney. So we talked about that, and his Crowdwire project.
Meanwhile, I was discovering wisdom in his published words, mentally rounding off the conversation from a year ago. I realised how far he’d been ahead of me in grasping our present realities. How I had in essence come to much the same view, and would channel it in an essay for Meanjin.
The goal is no longer to be in touch, but to erase the possibility of ever being out of touch. To merge, to live simultaneously with everyone, sharing every moment, every perception, thought, and action via our screens.
Even the places where we used to go to get away from the crowd and the burdens it imposes on us are now connected. The simple act of going out for a walk is completely different today from what it was fifteen years ago. Whether you are walking down a big city street or in the woods outside a country town, if you are carrying a mobile device with you, the global crowd comes along. A walk can still be a very pleasant experience, but it’s a qualitatively different experience, simply because it’s busier.
The air is full of people.4
I’m reading this sentence of Bill’s again, locked away, buying myself time to write this essay. Insisting I will write this essay, even though I must prepare to be a guest on a radio show wrapping up the year in politics.
What on earth can I say of this year? (Yes, I’m straying, chasing the moving light again.) The air is full of people. It certainly is.
My best friend in politics hates the live blog, hates social media, thinks hyper-connectivity is just a wind tunnel. This person is like a disembodied conscience, and does not spare me: ‘When are you going to do some actual journalism again?’ (The opening gambit of most of our conversations.) ‘You think you are building an audience. You think they love you? You are all just talking to each other. Have you noticed yet? When are you going to stop, and notice?’
Connectedness is different for different people. Self-evidently, it’s hell for people who crave quiet and stillness. Like thousands of people peering in your window constantly. An abject nightmare of noise and intrusion. No fun for those who find multi-tasking difficult either.
Our children are growing up in this culture of constant connectivity.
At one level, the desire to be constantly connected to one’s peer group is not new. I remember well lobbing home from school, throwing down my school bag and making straight for the telephone. Hours of prattle ensued. What can you possibly have to talk about, my mother wondered, you’ve been with your friends all day. One friend’s mother used to set the oven timer so we didn’t rave on with our self-conscious adolescent emotional dramas all night.
But now technology gives many more options. Now my daughter swings through the door already facedown in her iPod, monitoring Facebook or catching up on a fashion blog she loves. Her phone is bleeping with texts in her other pocket.
This is the distinctive gait of our moment in history—this facedown walk, intent on the palm-sized device. I’ve perfected face down in the device as I sprint through the corridors of Parliament House. It’s a wonder we don’t crash into each other or fall over more often. Perhaps we will in time develop sonar, like bats. (Look around you as you amble today on your lunch break. At least half the people you see are communicating as they walk.)
My son swings through the door, sweaty from his bike ride, and makes a beeline for the computer and the iPad. He fires up Skype and one of his online games, Roblox or Minecraft, jams on his gaming headphones with the built-in microphone, and reconvenes the playground in our family room.
Pulling them away from their screens is hard work. It’s a point of friction. But my kids still read books, like going outside, crave adventures of various sorts. What Bill Powers would call ‘digital maximalism’ is their world. We’ve created it for them. We can hardly blame them when they race to adapt to its language and strictures.
The costs? We don’t know. Not yet. One of my worries about my own professional hyper-connectivity was the impact on my writing. The long-form writing, not the blog posts. Some reporters love reporting. I do too obviously, but what I love most is writing. Writing is who and what I am. I was concerned the frequency of blog posts would addle my writing style—ruin the tempo of a weekly newspaper column I still file for the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.
The column I wrote for the first weekend after I started the blog was terrible. Like a machine gun. Indiscriminate ratter-tat-tat. I looked at the words on the screen in abject despair. So I’ve had to create distinct segments in my head for writing. One part of the brain for the long-form stuff, another for the live. Two tempos, two different styles.
Perhaps many women do well in digital because they are used to multi-tasking. (There, I’ve said it. I’ve played the gender card, consistent with the soundtrack to national politics in this year.) Women with children run about five different schedules in their heads all the time while seemingly being 100 per cent absorbed in the task at hand. That’s our thing. We are either wired that way or it’s learned behaviour. I don’t pretend to know which.
I also love people. I love conversation. I love bouncing along where I discover one thing after another and don’t worry if sometimes that means I’ve lost where I started. The connected world unfurls like a treasure trove for the curious.
The crowd is a comforting place for me, even if I’m at odds with it, even if it buffets me uncomfortably. The crowd is my milieu. It’s not my source of wisdom. It’s not my raison d’être, it’s not my essential nourishment, but it is where my personality defaults.
Except, of course, when it doesn’t. The thing about saturation living and working and creating is managing it. I think Bill Powers’ thesis of perspective and balance is right more or less—digital maximalism has to be kept in proportion somehow.
It must work for you, not you for it. When I’m not ‘on’ these days, I’m right off. I have news blackouts. I avoid political chat shows (which are mostly macabre anyway). I might skim the weekend newspapers but I rarely read them comprehensively—which is a bit of a sacrifice, because I used to enjoy it. When I’m home alone, I prioritise quiet. If I don’t need the radio, it’s off. I don’t even have on incidental background music any more—I either listen with intent and purpose or I don’t. I prioritise reading, fiction and nonfiction, because it’s immersion requiring sustained concentration. I listen to silence for leisure. You’d be surprised how loud silence is, and how varied and meaningful, if you listen—because in silence you will hear your best thoughts.
I find it intriguing that people are shunning wi-fi connections on aeroplanes. I read somewhere recently that Qantas is canning its in-flight internet service because the passengers don’t want it. That tells you something. Plane rides are natural downtimes where work can get done. But when you get on a plane, you tend to see a lot of people just craving a time to switch off, a time to think and read and regroup and sleep. A time to retreat to the serenity of private thoughts. Planes aren’t social places. They are quiet places. Interesting that we want them to remain thus.
The London nurse who apparently committed suicide after a banal radio prank in December was like a wake-up call for the excesses of our connectedness. That tragedy exposed that gap between being ‘connected’ and being nourished in the sense that humanism nourishes. It exposed the costs of being on the grid—the distortions and dangers and unpredictable consequences associated with modern communication.
It was a human tragedy, and a profound cultural moment. But rather than marking it and learning from it—maybe calling an armistice out of respect—the hyper-connected universe turned it into a circus, with a lynch mob roaming on social media, saturation coverage by the conventional press, a phalanx of talking heads analysing facts that were far from clear.
At moments like that you worry. You wonder if we are losing all proportion; if this is a careening bus driving us all to an extinction of sorts, to that nadir my friend worries about. A place without brain, heart or reason; a place where there is noise and spectacle and no meaning.
Crowds can be purposeful, and they can be brutal.
But ultimately I’m optimistic. I don’t know why, but I am. The connected world is a place of richness and abundance. So much knowledge at our fingertips, filtered and unfiltered. So much potential. There are reasons to doubt, and to worry—but there is also unprecedented opportunity for engagement, for conversation, for community, for enhancement and connection. A golden age or end times. Or both. Or neither.
I think the philosophy I take away from my year of living connectedly is this: reach out, genuinely, and seek rich conversations. They are there. Community is there, knowledge is there, and it’s life affirming.
And when it all gets too much, go for a walk, look up at the stars. Go out into the garden and sit in the sunshine. Entice your kids away from their screens and revel in the kinship and the connection that is not ambivalent, or divided, or contradictory, or capricious. Prioritise the connections that are our essential fabric, our heart and soul, and our reason for being—don’t let them get lost in the crowd.
But before you do that, turn off the phone and pull your cable out of the wall.
Image: William Warby
- Aron Pilhofer, Digital Journalism panel discussion at the Walkleys Conference, Canberra, November 2012.
- The Pulse Live, Fairfax Media, at http://smh.com.au.
- William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in a Digital Age, Scribe, Melbourne, 2010, p. 40.
- Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry, p. 15.