Author’s note: I’ve been off the internet for a week. I should have loved to come back with a bang, all pith and wit and to the point. How shiny and renewed I would seem. How happy the Dear Readers would be. Instead, you may have guessed, I have returned with seven days of pent-up writing, so this is my usual hotch-potch of tangents, fancies, absurd length, and quite possibly no point at all. Some things, it appears, do not change.
On Monday the 11th of May I decided, for a lot of dull and complicated reasons, to get offline.
I adore the internet. I believe it mostly uses its powers for good rather than evil. I think it still carries the imprint of its great inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, who gave it away for free. (I know that Berners-Lee did not really invent the internet. The American defence department did that with an assist from various universities, British and French scientists, and help from Hedy Lamarr. And Al Gore. Or something. But Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web which is what everyone uses and what is, in daily life, the de facto internet. If I am to thank one human, he is that human.) My fondness for the internet is such that when it goes mad and starts issuing death threats to women who want Jane Austen on a banknote, I feel that peculiar sorrow that you get when a dear old friend does something entirely out of character.
Of course, there is no such thing as ‘the internet’. Just as with other sweeping collective nouns, like the electorate or the government or parliament, it is made up of the various individuals who people it. Like those individuals, it is good and bad and funny and silly and angry and generous and rotten.
Mostly, I try to fight confirmation bias, but my confirmation bias is on red alert when I go online. I see the small human stories, the moments of politeness, the daily kindnesses, the generosity of spirit, the comical pandas, the engaged and informative debates, the wonderful gaudy spree of information. All those things I would never know and all those lives I would never witness are there for me, like a dazzling human play.
But I hit a bit of a wall and my mind was too stretched and I thought: switch the machine off.
On the first two days, I remained silent – no tweeting, no blogging, no Facebook posts - but still had the odd peek behind the curtain. There was a stupid man saying stupid things which went a tiny bit viral, and I felt cross about it but did not comment. There were two people asking for help on a horse forum I follow. I sort of knew the answer, but put my bossy boots away and let others, who had more knowledge than I, sort out the problem. On the radio, a woman with an amazingly irritating voice and a mealy mouth was being annoying; I refrained from tweeting about people who cannot call a spade a spade. Instead of waking up in the morning thinking thoughts that must be shared with the group, I just thought thoughts. I did not have to photograph my dog, my horse, my garden, my life, for public consumption.
Stopping the blog and the Facebook was a bit sad. I like putting things out in the world and getting the reaction from the Dear Readers. It has a touching community aspect which I enjoy. It has brought me into contact with people I would not otherwise know and it gives me a perspective on life. It is a pressure though. I want to do something good, write some decent prose, make people smile. Every day, I try to offer something. Now, I thought, I can just think the thoughts and live the life and stay still.
The third day was easy. On the second day, I read an article in the Guardian and half an article in the Speccie and then stopped, not because I was keeping to my rule, but because my normal what are people saying about the news engine was simply not firing. After that, I don’t think I thought about the online world at all for day three. I read a book instead. I suddenly thought: I won’t have to panic any more when the electricity goes down and I have no computer and I have to sit with nothing but candles and my library.
On the fourth day, I was sorely tested. There was an And Finally item on the news. And, finally, JOHNNY DEPP HAS YORKSHIRE TERRIERS. Actually, they did not phrase it quite like that. It was a fluff piece about him trying to smuggle his dogs into Australia on his private jet. The funniest part was a stern Australian customs man who said: ‘I don’t care if you have been voted the Sexiest Man in the World twice, rules are rules.’ It was not a story about the coolest actor on the planet having toy dogs, but that was what struck me. Johnny Depp should have sleek, athletic Lab-Collie crosses, or Weimeraners, or German short-haired Pointers, or Vislas, or a lovely lurcher, or some kind of noble hunting dog. I could see him with beagles or Dalmatians or American Foxhounds. But Yorkshire Terriers????
On a normal day I would have blogged the hell out of this. I would have made jokes about all the road trips in the world with Hunter S Thompson not redeeming Depp’s shattered image. Did he tie bows in their hair and call them Fifi and Nou-Nou? I was on the floor with amazement and interest.
Instead, I thought those thoughts in my own head and went away to write a book. After that I would read a book. I was slightly sad I could not do my Depp riff, but then I might have made people who adore Yorkshire Terriers unhappy, so perhaps it was just as well. I had a suspicion that in about seven hours I would not think it that interesting anyway. The thing about living on the internet is that you are always hunting for hooks. This story, that picture, this unlikely juxtaposition, that hysterical joke – everything must be grist to the online mill. Now, my hazy scenting mind could just see a thing as it was, turn it over, and put it down again. It did not have to be exploited for some cheap reaction. I quite liked this. Day Four was perhaps not going to be as hard as I thought.
On the fifth day, I almost broke cover. I felt slightly out of touch with the world. Of course I still had the dear old BBC and Radio Four; I heard the news. But I realised how much I gathered daily from the internet – pieces of political gossip, sudden scandals in high places, excellent analysis from sophisticated brains. International news, in particular, breaks now on the internet, and the lumbering behemoths of television and print seem miles behind.
I missed the camaraderie too. It had been the Dante meeting at York and then a new rich raceday at Newbury, with some young dazzlers and some old friends running on the sun-beamed turf. I wanted my racing posse. I wanted to talk about the cool brilliance of Ryan Moore and what on earth he was going to do with his four new watches, and the dancing beauty of Telescope romping down the straight, and the sweet, determined face of Integral, and how she ran like a tiger in defeat. I wanted to share the wonder of American Pharoah (sic) powering through the dour slop of Belmont like a doughty old warrior to win the Preakness and keep his Triple Crown hopes alive.
But I resisted. I’m not sure whether this experiment really did rest my tired brain, although it did make me realise how much of my internet use was out of knee-jerk habit. For all that, I was cussedly determined to see it through. I did damn well read books and long magazine articles and managed perfectly well without any pictures of adorable pandas. I quite liked the fact that I realised I did not have to comment on every single thing that took my interest, that the online world really did not need my thoughts and opinions, but could trundle along perfectly happily without me. I had assumed that in the burly and hurly of the antic web nobody would notice, but, rather touchingly, they did. A few kind people, used to my racing yelps of delight, daily red mare adoration, winding blog tangents, sunny Scottish photographs, and Stanley the Dog tunnel-digging bulletins, did gently make sure that I was not dead in a ditch. I was rather astonished and very moved. One of them I knew in real life; the rest were pure online friends, the absolute shining epitome of the kindness of strangers. A community is a community, even if it is virtual. The sneeriness of those who denigrate the online world would fade like breath on glass faced with the generous reality.
One of those online friends is facing the kind of profound heartbreak for which, I always think, words are no good. I love words and believe in words and am daily astounded by the power of words, but there are times when they are paltry, and this is one of those times. Yet she said, stoical and encouraging, that she missed reading what I wrote. Good God, I thought, all my absurd musings, incoherent half-formed theories, idiotish obsessions actually mean something to someone I have never met, who is facing one of life’s cruellest fast balls. Such a thing should perhaps make one feel proud; it made me feel humble.
The internet is a place of huge world events, universally famous humans, dictators, disasters, conspiracy theories, and governments. The tectonic plates of geo-politics shift and grind. It is a wide prairie of important information which effects real humans. But it is also a place where one may find illuminating, touching, startling and inspiring slivers of ordinary lives. These lives will not go down in the history books. They will not have monuments built to them; they contain no levers which may shift the world. But there, in little flashes of online reality, they exist, provoking a laugh, a cry, a frown of recognition. They mean something.
Those lives mean something whether they are written down or not. You do not have to do a tap dance on Facebook to prove your worth. But those glimpses, seen by unknown humans thousands of miles away, are, I think, benign little arrows which fly from one ordinary heart to another.
All of which is a very, very long way of saying: I’m glad to be back.
Are from a sunny day at the end of last week: