At the end of 2013 I will be stepping away from blogging until June 2016, by which time I'm sure blogging will be obsolete. It feels excellent to discard a cultural practice which sounds and has begun to feel like a combination of bragging, slogging, slobbing, blabbing, blubbing, gobbing, gagging, dragging and blagging.
A recently made list of things I wanted to write about went like this: "Charles Saatchi book, Red Cross anniversary, Bhopal campaign, Burmese children's charity." Just looking at the list made my heart sink, but I felt I somehow owed my free labour to that great, greedy, invisible boss called The Internet.
I may still write those pieces as I'm passionate about the issues. They would be newspaper, UN or NGO quality articles, taking several days each to write. I'd do them for free but the work would not be wasted. The pieces I produce are cribbed and quoted by the broadsheets, used as springboards for radio discussions, reposted by charities or other relevant initiatives or used to frame panel debates at cultural, civil society or political events. The words become part of an official conversation which is noisier, faster and more diverse than ever. I have gained from the cruel power dynamics of cultural influence: my site has relatively few readers but nearly all of them work in the media, politics, culture or the grey area right at the top which links everything together in networked secrecy.
Yet behind all that worldly interest is a growing fatigue produced by the endless analysis, commentary, feedback, follow-through and dialogue that I and my colleagues are endlessly churning out. The ever-shifting interactions of a journalistic career are stimulating, but they are a sugar buzz, a scatter of sherbet on the frontal lobe. The big debate of one day is swiftly replaced by another; our words get fried and refried, then sizzle into nothing. I am not sure that working at one's best speed produces the best thoughts and it feels exhausting and ineffective to react in the same way, with virtually the same words, every single time the same issue comes up in a new guise. I want to go deeper, think more clearly, be more strategic and less reactive. I'll continue to write for The Huffington Post about international affairs, gender, human rights and social justice, but with shrewder timing and precise thought, articles carefully interrogated and reworked offline until I am sure that I'm saying something unique and useful.
Underneath the buzz and compulsiveness of the digital media age there is a growing desire for withdrawal and solitude which I am sure is a reaction to having my brain bled dry every time I go online. As a browser, I emerge from a surfing session feeling depleted and soiled, disgusted at myself and strangely amnesia afflicted. I don't feel I've used the Net, I feel it's used me and then spat me out. As a contributor, when I post a blog piece the pleasure of writing quickly degrades as the article is sifted all over the world for a couple of hours before sinking down to join the mulch of all the other billions of equally good or bad articles at the bottom.
I have always loved journalism more than anything. It gives me a sense of being connected to the world and I never in a million years thought I would fall out of love with it. But when something you used to love becomes something you dread, something that feels like chipping words out of lead, you have to heed the warning. The sense of space and self-possession I once felt have been eroded and it is this space which I wish to reclaim: the privacy in which to create good quality work at a deep level and in contemplative isolation. That is not possible if a writer is constantly acting and reacting, hyper alert to their surroundings.
At an event a few weeks ago I casually remarked, "I feel as though the Internet is dissolving my brain," and was surprised when the audience exclaimed in recognition. It sparked a group discussion on the necessity of reclaiming contemplation, of turning the computer off, of reclaiming reading in silence, of reclaiming the craft of writing, of focusing on just one thing at a time, of trying to strengthen and de-flab our intelligence.
Online and offline I find myself fidgeting and twitching, blinking my too-dry eyes and itching my face where it's been too close to a dusty, static-buzzing screen. I've started making spelling mistakes in nearly every line of every email I write and am getting worse at rereading to spot errors. I'm having to force myself to sit through feature films, novels, long articles. I'm having to remind myself how to remember things. I don't have an addictive personality (believe me it's not for lack of trying) but I can easily spend six hours surfing the Net and not remember exactly what I was looking at: a disposable, non-biodegradable mash-up of consumer items, quickly digested news stories, linkable hack facts, interviews, human rights campaign materials, music videos and comments about comments about comments.
If this is what's happening to us mentally and physically, how can we produce anything of value? We are cheating ourselves out of the art of reading, letting go of depth of thought, eschewing clarity of writing, analysis, style and perception for quick-fire reaction shots. These days when I write I feel like it's being swallowed up in an endless, blaring sea of voices. I just can't rehash the same pieces, saying exactly the same things only with fresh and ever more terrible examples. So many of the dozens of pieces I've written could easily be crystallised into definitive essays for a major book, were I not constantly reacting to immediate events, many of which ultimately proved the same point.
Many print era journalists contend that the Internet is full of rubbish: ignorant people producing obscene, misogynistic, violent, trashy, solipsistic, unnecessary bile, like seven billion bigoted neighbours shouting over the fence - or worse, talking to themselves - or worse, sitting in a local bar with a few equally bigoted friends who egg them on.
I don't agree with this view. What the Internet has shown is that the world is full of brilliant and insightful writers, varied voices, strong talents from all over the world. There are experts who can describe their work with knowledge and vividness, commentators of all ages and backgrounds writing with thrilling insight. As a human rights journalist I have been awed by the level of reportage, film-making, investigation, analytic case studies and cogent reports produced by organisations worldwide. Some work with the UN, others are charities and NGOs, others might be from local reporting stations or community projects while yet more are individual volunteers or work on specific initiatives. It is not true that only trained journalists working for large media outlets can present the world to itself and make sense of it; much of the best analysis, contextualisation, polemic, documentary and reportage I have encountered has been by non-journalist professionals or by media-trained people working for non media organisations.
All creators need space, concealment and time - unfashionable concepts these days - to work and change, even to experiment and fail. In the next two years and a half years I will be continuing with all aspects of my public life. But when I'm at my desk, perhaps I'll kick back and nose through the books on my to-read pile. Or maybe just do absolutely nothing except think. Or not think. Whatever.
Yet even as I type that there's a scrape of anxiety high in the gut. Where does this anxiety come from? How did a mere web journal, written for free but to professional standards, become another semi-official, quasi-capitalistic drag in which to taunt oneself exhaustingly about one's status? The Internet has cleverly got us to the point where we feel we owe it our free labour, that we are guilty of neglect if we cease to check in with it every day and that something bad will happen if we stop feeding it. It's like endlessly shovelling coal into a steam train that's going round in circles.
Somehow, for all journalists, our day job has become our hobby - and that hobby has expanded to fill every inch of space, real and virtual. The Net is the ultimate vampire frenemy: intriguing when absent, draining when present, they promise but they don't deliver and when you finally shake them off at the end of the night you can't remember what you talked about. We have turned into Net zombies with Stockholm Syndrome. We are creating the Net all the time and consuming the Net all the time and both experiences are becoming ever shoddier.
As audiences drift between newspapers, consolidate around a certain issue or theme and then re-form afresh when the paradigm changes, it is down to journalists to brand themselves, to market themselves, to turn themselves into an independent source with authority and individuality so that others will come to them instead of them having to hustle for prominence. I have two objections to the survival challenge being set for journalists today. First, I believe that labour should be paid and I am sad that journalism is being deprofessionalised even though, as I have said, this does not mean that the quality of the material has degraded. Second, the star journalist of the new media era is a strange figure in itself and I am not willing to be that person. The new media journalism star is a personality with a face and a name, intimately close, direct of voice yet calculatedly semi-revealing in image, peddling a 'lifestyle', a position, a personal history, an attitude as well as an analysis. They are always on, always reactive, yet always strangely predictable, engaged in a constant unpeeling and updating of the issues and the perpetual construction and deconstruction of the online self.
It's not that the public writing self and the private writing self have intermingled; the public self has subsumed the private and then turned itself inside out. Everything is now offered up, sometimes for inner catharsis, sometimes for outer gain, always with an eye to one's career. What would happen if we stopped feeding the beast? There would be a few days of withdrawal, missing the buzz of posting a quick cultural op-ed that nobody asked for and that made no difference to anything because it was exactly the same as all the other intelligent, incisive, progressive op-eds produced by people exactly like oneself.
And then what? We would have to reclaim reality. We would have to consciously create the future we want instead of feeling that we're racing to catch up or running as hard as we can just to stay in the same place. That is where both the fascination and the challenge lie. I'm thrilled to be living through a time of such extraordinary metamorphosis, intrigued by what it's doing to us, worried that the lure of the virtual will warp our experience of the real but always impressed by our ability to survive given the speed of innovation and the brutality of change.
I'd suggest a few things, inspired by the audience who felt that their brains, like mine, were being dissolved. For our professional health we must reclaim our careers and our livelihoods. For our psychological health we must reclaim our concentration. For our social health we must reclaim our self-control, our decorum, our civility and our discipline. For our artistic health we must reclaim our purity of vision and the tenacity to see it through. And for our spiritual health we must reclaim a radical privacy, a contemplative depth, an unpolluted clarity, an intelligent self-possession, a rapturous peace and a transformative silence.