These days it's virtually possible to live entirely online if you want to. But the real world tends to intrude eventually.

Guy Brighton
  • 24 june 2011

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This article titled “What goes on in the mind of internet obsessives?” was written by Alexander Chancellor, for The Guardian on Thursday 23rd June 2011 19.00 UTC

New research shows that 77% of people over 65 now have their own computers and use the internet with gusto. They no longer rely on their grandchildren to sort out problems but deal with them confidently themselves. It makes them feel young, they say. And they particularly like social networking because it helps them keep in touch. Well, that’s what they say. But the internet can also be seen as a tool for withdrawing from the real world into a world of one’s own invention. It obviates the need for any direct human contact, which can be stressful, and replaces it with a controllable system of social communication that keeps other people at an unthreatening distance. It can offer the illusion of a social life without ever having to see or talk to anyone else. This might be tempting to old people who are shy or deaf or don’t like going out; but it can be a trigger for compulsive behaviour, whatever their age.

Gary McKinnon, the British computer hacker whose extradition the US is seeking on the grounds that he tried to destroy American security systems, denies any such purpose in his attacks on its military websites. He made them, he says, because he believed that the US government was withholding critical information about the UFOs that he knew to be flying around the earth. This so obsessed him that he lost his job and his girlfriend, and started to spend all his time at home, hacking.

“I stopped washing at one point,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “I wasn’t looking after myself. I wasn’t eating properly. I was sitting around the house in my dressing gown, doing this all night.” He has been diagnosed by medical experts as suffering from autism, depression and suicidal tendencies. Opposing his extradition, a House of Commons select committee said he was in a “precarious state of mental health”.

The case of McKinnon illustrates how the internet can deliver enormous power to helpless, frightened, friendless individuals. It must be irresistible for them, alone in their bedrooms, to find that they are able to paralyse the military institutions of the world’s greatest nation. They may well have no purpose in doing this apart from simply exercising that power.

That’s McKinnon. We don’t yet know much about the Essex teenage hacker Ryan Cleary, who was arrested this week in a joint operation by Scotland Yard and the FBI. Cleary, whose targets allegedly included Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency, never left his bedroom in the family bungalow at Wickford in Essex except to go to the bathroom. According to his mother, he “lives his life online” and would only “socialise on the internet”. She said he “didn’t really have any friends” and no “proper girlfriend”, except perhaps in cyberspace.

Anthony Weiner, the American Democratic congressman who had to resign after sending women dirty messages and dirty pictures of himself on Facebook and Twitter, insisted he had not been unfaithful to his wife because he had never been in the physical presence of the women. But he also said he had “met” them on the internet and had had “relationships” with them there, suggesting that you can now meet and have relationships with people whom you have never actually run into. In other words, meetings with people in cyberspace can now seem so much like genuine encounters that they deserve to be equally stigmatised. Perhaps there is no escape from the real world after all.

The stress of rural life

Being no expert on those parts of the brain – the amygdala and the cingulate cortex – that are supposed to regulate anxiety and emotion, I am in no position to argue with the finding of learned researchers that they are much jumpier in city people than in those who live in the country. But I would dispute the conclusion that country life is necessarily less stressful than its urban alternative. The country is not nearly as peaceful as people imagine. It includes a great deal of noise – lawn mowers, tractors, sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, and so on – and its inhabitants are no respecters of privacy. Whereas townspeople hesitate to ring one’s doorbell without warning, country people seem to think that popping in and out of each other’s houses at any time of day is a neighbourly thing to do.

And then in the country, one always seems to be engaged in some sort of conflict. In my case, it is currently a battle against a proposal to place a wind farm on my doorstep, but there are always disputes going on about something or other – boundaries, trespass, rights of way, tree-felling, and so on. And then there are sudden dramatic fallings-out, as was the case the other day when one of the two men who help with my garden claimed to have been punched by the other and summoned the police. What could be more stressful than having to deal with the police over an incident one has not witnessed but of which one has been given two wildly divergent accounts? But I suppose that could also have happened in a town. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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