Writer Kevin Barry discusses his addiction to email and staying connected.
I tend to wake a little before eight in the morning, and for a moment or two I listen to what the weather is doing outside our house in south County Sligo; on almost 300 days of the year it is raining, and I curse my fate. I then endure a moment of intense moral struggle. I know that I am going to get up soon and spend the morning attempting to write fiction, as Destiny says I must, and I know the last thing I should do now, because it will shatter my concentration before I even begin, is go online. But of course I reach to the bedside table and grasp the iPhone. My wife tends to be awake a little before me, and she will already be tappety-tapping at her iPhone, even as I listen to the counterpoint of the rain’s snare-drum beat outside, and so my insinuation into the online world has begun even before I’m truly awake.
I check my Gmail. I read bits of the papers. I Google myself – and yes, shame reddens my cheek as I type that phrase. I would almost rather admit to lying in bed, mornings, and abusing myself, but my suspicion is that almost all writers, young and old, now perform Google and Twitter searches for references to themselves several dozen times a day. I flutter about from site to site. I may well (as in, I do) have a look to see how I’m getting on in terms of Amazon sales, so I’ll visit the UK, American and Canadian versions. I have even been known to visit the Japanese version, because someone (a worried Murakami?) bought a book of my stories out there once. I go back to Gmail and refresh my inbox to see if anything has come through in the five minutes since I last checked, though it’s not yet eight in morning, but maybe somebody I know is up late in San Francisco, and wants to make me fatally rich and world-renowned and has chosen just now to tell me about it; but I have no new messages (0) and another little knife is twisted in my nervous gut. I am not yet standing or even fully conscious but already I am in that impatient, flitty, online mode: I bound about like one of those neurotic petrol-sniffer hares you’ll see at the Dublin airport car park. I stay nowhere longer than a minute or two, if that. I’ll start to read a piece, but two paragraphs in I’ll go yeah, right, blah-de-blah, and move on. You could not by force of will design a state of mind more unsuitable for getting up and attempting to make Literature, but that, hilariously, is what I get up and try to do.
Or after a fashion, anyway. Lately, I note, most of the essays and stories I write tend to be broken up into very short, numbered sections, because I can no longer replicate on the page the impression or sensation of consecutive, concentrated thought, because I don’t really do that anymore.
Last year, I spoke with two other Irish writers after a reading in Paris and I asked them how many times a day, at an honest estimate, they checked their email. One of them, who is younger than me and much more connected, totted it up and blushed and said – “Maybe … 80?” The other, older than me and I would have thought much less connected, shook her head, and scoffed, and said – “Oh, at least … 120? Or OK, maybe … 130?”
Me? I don’t turn the internet off while I’m writing, and I don’t have that software that blocks it, so I’ll check at least once every five minutes during the working morning. So that’s probably about 50 checks by lunchtime. In the afternoons, I gad about the Sligo hills, often on my bike, but that doesn’t stop me from fishing the iPhone out, though granted the checking will be at the more relaxed pace of about a half-dozen times an hour. So we’re heading towards 90 checks or so by teatime. In the evenings, I tend to check my mail quite a lot, because the US is about its working day, and you never know what might come in from over there. So we’re back up to maybe 10 checks an hour. By bedtime, I’ve checked my Gmail I would think at least 150 times, and this may be a conservative count.
On at least 140 of these occasions, my inbox will tell me that I have no new messages (0). That’s 140 tiny ego deaths I suffer a day. The effect of these is minuscule individually, but significant cumulatively. Of the 10 or so mails I get a day, two or three will be spam offering me new tits, or a reliable erection, or investment opportunities in Lagos, and the rest will be dull and routine. I might get one or two mails a month of the type that I’m actually after – these are the emails that tell me I’m a wonderful writer of stories or scripts or whatever and there’s money on the way. Each of these mails turns me into a more monstrous egomaniac – each to a tiny degree, maybe, but the effect, again, is cumulative.
The scene, late at night, in County Sligo: by the side of the bed there are, typically, between 20 and 30 books. Also, there are copies of magazines and literary journals. I am reading none of these. I am lying in the bed tapping at my iPhone. It is a rare occurrence for me now to finish a book. I search for reasons to stop reading rather than for reasons to go on. I flit and hop from book to book in precisely the way my brain has been trained to flit and hop from site to site – I have been neurologically rewired. If contemporary books have some tiny hope of being read all the way through, I believe that many of the classics have none at all – if you’ve been online all day, their pace just seems altogether glacial now; they can seem kind of ridiculous. I had a go last winter at Madame Bovary, and it took me three weeks to get through about 60 pages of the horrible thing before I flung it across the room. It just wouldn’t move in the way I expect a narrative to move now. I fear that I will never be able to read such books again, and I fear I am not alone in this, that I am typical of the current multitude, and the coming multitudes will be worse again – they won’t even try to read such books – and the classics will fade away, and disappear.
A few months ago, I spoke to some art students, and we talked about the internet and its effects. It appears that the cool thing now for arty kids in their early 20s is to go offline. They spoke happily of closing their Facebook accounts and giving up Twitter. The internet, they suggested, has become a bit of a Dad thing. They seemed to me to be much less excited about it than my own generation is. It was as boring to them as television was to me when I was in my 20s – I just wasn’t arsed about it; it was what middle-aged people did – and I wonder now if the coming multitudes might not be so bad after all.
Or – what if it’s a skin of anxiety that’s pulled tautly across the entire surface of the world, over all the hills and undulations, and what if it has changed everything, forever, and for the worse, and what if we can never, ever escape from it?
• A longer version of this piece appears in Dublin Review #49