Back in the 1960s a journalist found John Lennon writing while lying on a sofa, watching t.v, listening to the radio and reading a newspaper. He seemed to live in a state of information overload. She thought it was lazy and barbaric; Marshall McLuhan would call it a technological extension of man in the electronic age, but would agree it came with an amputation. We can witness anything anywhere on the planet – but not much is happening in that room.
In 1991 the novel Alma Cogan by Gordon Burn was published. It mixed up the life story of the UK singer Alma Cogan with the crimes of UK serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. It was a comment on celebrity culture and the weird way the media impacts on our lives. Our brains must be packed with things we’ve only seen in print or on a screen. All those things must be mingling away in our subconscious and who knows in what combinations or to what affect they’ll resurface. And how weird must it be if you’re one of the subjects the media covers. What would you think about yourself?
In 2008 Burns published Born Yesterday – the News as a Novel – a collage of things featured on 24 hour rolling news t.v. stations the Summer before. It happened to include the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal, Tony Blair leaving office and the failed Glasgow Airport bombing. Nowadays we can spend hours watching a hack stand in a field while every possible (and impossible) angle of a story is squalled back to the studio, then dropped and largely forgotten. You can know the minutia of a manhunt, while never being entirely clear what happened before or after he went on the run.
In 2005 YouTube went live and brief moments could be filmed, uploaded, manipulated and commented on in an endless loop until the public was bored or the footage was removed. Ordinary people went ‘viral’ because of their cute pet, or a Star Wars dance, or lip-syncing a song or a funny remark their kid made. Famous people became embroiled in scandals because of racist rants, or couch jumping, or wardrobe malfunctions.
In 2006 came Twitter and with it – arrests, sackings, reputation Armageddons and social media stars who judge all that comes before them in 140 characters including a link to their other platform. It matters intensely while you’re scrolling and – except for a few unlucky sods, the ones who get to play IT – not a jot when you’re out In Real Life. We lose perspective in the digital world. We over-share, lie, troll, flame, stalk, block, create epic dramas out of minor disagreements, plot revenge, post ‘cute’ selfies, and deactivate hurt and scared before coming back to do it all again. It’s like the Fame French Revolution except the young revolutionaries never take over from the heads they’ve rolled. They stay in their rooms and wait for the next victim from the dwindling talent pool.
It’s a massive change and no change at all. You can fall in love, get therapy, find a new identity, shop, bank, game, crusade, feud, play detective, raise money… any amount of huge, life-changing activities – or you could never log on and pay no attention to it whatsoever.