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There’s an awful lot of toss talked on the Internet. In real life too, of course, but it’s far, far worse on the net. The reasons for this are legion – lack of peer review prior to ‘publication’, the need to blog even if people don’t have anything new to say (and even if they never had anything to say), the social networking opportunities that beg to be fulfilled. It’s considered bad form to point this out or to question every human’s inviolable right to say what they want, all the time, but let’s face it – we are now surrounded by a whirling cloud of invisible bollocks.

(Example: there’s more than app, for the love of God, which enables you to tweet up a random quote, to help you keep up your posting rate during those periods when you don’t have anything whatsoever to say. Which is psychotic.)

Anyway. My point is it’s nice when you discover someone who isn’t talking toss, as I recently did in Dave Pell’s blog at (to which I was steered by Smoking Apples, another blog worth reading, assuming you’re rather too interesting in matters Apple-related). Pell’s blog is great: thoughtful, well-written and generally bang on the nail – and if you’ve got the time to spare, go check it out.

But do you, in fact, have the time to spare?

Real time, that’s actually spare?

I was at a kids’ party yesterday and found myself wondering: what on earth did parents do at these events before the advent of smartphones? Before they could while away the hours as their kids romped under the supervision of an entertainer and then stuffed themselves full of weapons-grade sugar while ignoring the statutory carrot sticks and humous (I have a fantasy about writing a novel from the perspective of a pot of childrens’ party humous, revealing that there’s only ever been one pot in London, which has been circulating around parties for the last ten years, never eaten, always scraped back into the container and then passed on)… what did they do? Presumably they talked. Or watched their kids. Or stared into space and thought about something else. But now they all stand staring down at their phones, finding they have no new emails, monitoring non-critical status updates from people they don’t actually know (in the old-skool sense of ‘know’, which meant to, like, actually, ‘know’ someone), or just catching up on… ‘stuff’. Information. Views. Facts.

And all this, as Pell points out in one post, is uncomfortably like a drug. TV was never this bad. We sit in front of too much TV because it’s easy, or a form of company – not because we have a twitching compulsion to know what’s going on there the entire time. The net is different. It’s far more addictive in quality. I’ve even found I’ve started to consume news merely because there’s cute apps for doing so. I’m reading about stuff that formerly I didn’t care about, just because I can do so in a GUI-lickable way. I don’t think this is making me a better person, or better-informed. I think it’s just plain bonkers, and I’m trying to reign back.

Now that I have an iPad (yes, they’re fabulous, and yes, you want one), I can – and do – set aside discrete chunks of time to consume the web’s rich bounty of information. That’s enough, I’ve decided. I’ve always had my iPhone email set so I have to manually check for new emails, and thinking about all this has inspired me to do something else that I’d been meaning to for a while. I’ve gone through my phone and thrown off (almost) everything that counts as a pointless diversion or too-easy time filler. I’m down to the apps I need to run my life, ones that work best or only at all with the portability of the phone, and a few other cherished trinkets (including a handful of games to occasionally yield a few minutes peace from my beloved child, of course: I’ve not gone totally insane).

I heart my iPhone. My iPhone and I are, frankly, sitting in a tree. But I don’t want my every waking moment sucked down the drain of checking things or monitoring things or reading things that I don’t need (or actually even want – there’s a sizeable neurotic component here) to be doing. The Internet is turning us into obsessive consumers of the unimportant. That’s not good. There’s no point saying it’s merely a matter of impulse control, either. If our species possessed that in large quantities, we’d all be physically fit, perfectly-sized, non-smoking and non-drinking automatons who never got distracted or had affairs or started wars. I’ve met people like that, and they’re no fun at all.

I’m aware this is not a novel observation, and I only really started this now over-long entry to recommend Pell’s blog. For all I know it may be hugely celebrated already – I tend to wander around the web like a rube in the big city, having no clue of what all the hip citizens of the place already take for granted (What are these wondrous buildings with more than one storey? What strange magic informs them?) And yes of course – oh, the irony! – I’m also aware that this post of mine merely adds more words to the great seething pile of toss already out there.

So if you’re reading this while out strolling, or at a childrens’ party, or when you could be doing something else… just stop. Put the phone/iPad/laptop aside. Go do that something else. Stare out that train window. People-watch outside that Starbucks. Stroke the cat with your full attention. Just be. These words are simply not that important – even to me. I should be working on a TV script right now. I’m only typing this because it’s occurred to me, because I feel like it, in the hope that it might be mildly interesting to someone. And I hope it has been, and no – I’m not going to stop reading the web either, and of course spending some time on it isn’t the end of the world. But there are people and things out there that are real, which matter to us, and that will die. The Internet won’t. It is the new vampire – immortal, life-consuming, indifferent to us – and it will be here long after we’re all dead.

On the day we die, we won’t wish we’d read more blog posts or status updates or RSS feeds. We’ll wish we’d spent more time strolling or sitting in a daze, emailing with (genuine) friends, or hanging out in an unencumbered and non-mediated fashion with the people we love… including our own, quiet selves. These are the things that are real. Information is not, views are ephemeral, and facts don’t matter. People don’t have to express themselves on a rolling ten minute cycle, and we don’t have to know what they’re saying.

Deal with the real, not the toss. Start now.

I’ll help, by… shutting up 😉

Says Who?

Michael Marshall (Smith): novelist, screenwriter and sitting-place for cats.

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Said When?

June 2010
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