A childhood fantasy tale about the death of the digital age.
It’s a concept that we’ve all considered, wished for or dreaded – the end of the internet. We might all think that the world could, potentially, be a better place if our distractions were less digital – God knows, I find myself wishing that cell phones had remained things that you just spoke to other people on almost every night, as we struggle to get through a single film without the burst of sound coming from a YouTube video that Mrs R has to also watch at the same time – and I don’t boast of any moral superiority there, by the way, as I too am continually distracted now, as are you, as is everyone. How much better it was before our film and music choices were dictated by a handful of multinational conglomerates who can pick and choose what is or isn’t allowed on their platforms. How much better life was when our entertainment involved more than sitting gazing at exactly the same screens that we do our work on. For all the joys of global communication, were we not in a better place when we had to actually write letters? Back in the day, I traded zines and correspondence internationally – the idea that the internet has someone invented a global community is nonsense.
So in a strange way, I’m sympathetic with the premise of the new book Off: The Day The Internet Died. I’d be content going back to a world where you would be reading The Reprobate as words and pictures on paper, bought from a shop or via mail order. As long as the great switch off didn’t include TVs and Blu-ray players, and it meant the revival of physical media – the chance to buy a new movie rather than having to subscribe to some online platform – then yeah, I think I could live with that. But I say that smugly, knowing that I’m full of shit and for all the pleasures that might be revived from such a shutdown, there would also be untold difficulties. I’d miss grocery deliveries because if the lockdown has taught me anything, it’s that going to the supermarket is overrated and unpleasant. I’d miss the choice of being able to buy any book rather than the ones a national conglomerate decided that we should read – because things were not really that different back in the day when you sit down and think about it. Yes, we can worry about generations of screen-fixated zombies growing up, but people have worried about the new forever. Every moment of progress sweeps away things we would like to hold on to, but that’s the price we pay for improvements.
So I guess what I’m saying is that there is no joyous Shangri-La world where everything is just right, where we have access to every bit of information except the information we don’t approve of, where news is never fake but is always stage-managed by a handful of sources who are always trustworthy and where kids get as much information as they need from books. We have to take the bad with the good, even when the bad is bloody awful.
Anyway, as a Luddite fantasy, Off is an amusing, best-case-scenario where the screens go blank, everyone panics and then finds that they appreciate the simple pleasures of life again. Enjoying nature, playing board games, visiting bookshops. It’s a world that sounds hugely appealing because of course, it is appealing – no version of paradise, even now, involves people sitting in front of keyboards. Chris Colin’s mock-Biblical verse, Rinee Shah’s Mr Benn-style retro illustrations and the landscape format and short page-count all help recreate the feel of a children’s book, taking the adult reader back to a simpler, less techno-babbly world. it’s a nice fantasy and even the most social media-obsessed reader will probably buy into it because it is persuasively potent in its message. The book is subtitled A Bedtime Fantasy, and perhaps, if nothing else, it will help convince people to shut down their devices when in bed – reading in bed is one of life’s greatest pleasures that we seem to be reading because it is so much easier to carry on gazing at the screen.
I doubt the kids will be persuaded, any more than we were ever convinced to turn off our TV sets and go and do something less boring instead. But now, as then, I suspect that kids are actually doing much more than simply screen-gazing anyway. Go to a park – people are still able to switch off and enjoy the real world. They just do so in a different way. This is an amusing Utopian dream, a desert island fantasy that forgets that if you were stranded on a real desert island, you’d probably die very quickly. I think an analogue world would not be an awful thing; in many ways, it would be rather nice. But there’s no going back, and we need to concentrate on making our digital universe less of a horrendous place to live.
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