I have spent the month thinking about what we take in from the world and how we respond to and process this and, whether we actively choose to or not, how we send an output back into the world. This has been a month where part of the period was spent as I often have in the past – absorbing news, absorbing the miscellanea of social media, reading books, listening to podcasts, watching videos, hearing from others – and, part of the month has been spent not doing any of those thing – I turned off my news notifications and stopped reading news websites, I deleted Instagram and Facebook and stopped reading as much social media, I kept reading books, I kept listening to podcasts, but I curated my choices more towards things that were not in reaction to news events: for example, I listened to podcasts about mathematics, reaching back into interests I had years ago, that have no connection with current headlines or trends, but which instead speak to a part of myself that I only started to remember when I stopped allowing algorithms to dictate the parts of my mind I would give attention to. I think two conclusions can be most readily spoken to in relation to this:
The first is in relation to being careful about what information to put into myself. It’s like choosing good food – I’m thinking more and more about good information, healthy culture, ethically human and productive pieces of entertainment. I’ll give you a concrete example – recent tragic events involving gun violence. I have absorbed the news of many of these events, I have thought about them, talked about them with others, made particular, sad conclusions about them. And then, two weeks ago when I was looking for a pastime, after work had finished, I took out a board game from my cupboard that involved giant robots shooting each other. This is a hangover from my teenage years – I always liked big robots with big guns, lots of colour, lots of excitement, a bit of philosophy thrown in the mix – and while I can do all sorts of mental gymnastics to explain why it might be fine to be entertained by giant robots shooting each other in a way that is divorced from the current gun violence in the world, there is also a very basic question that does not require so many gymnastic moves, which is why would I choose to be entertained by something like this when I could choose something else. What sort of food am I choosing to put into my body.
On that particular day, I instead found a sketchpad and I sat outside in the yard and drew a lavender plant from our garden, and I felt good. In the future I am going to write an essay specifically on games – particularly, the world of games that could extend so far beyond the imagination of shooting games and these strange adolescent explorations of the boundaries between life and death, and instead to approach a world of story-telling and experience that could be so much richer if we put violence away and focused on other generative parts of the human experience. I wrote a piece called ‘The New Digital Organic’ that explored ways in which games based on flowers could speak to some of our ethical directions going forward in playing with the merging of technology and nature, for example, that could open up new avenues for gaming and entertainment, particularly for a generation of children not yet raised on first person shooter games and the like. I am not meaning to make moralistic declarations here about the sort of entertainment, the sort of culture and information that people should put into themselves – but what I am saying is that I am ethically considering this to a much more serious and reflective degree than I have been for some years. I am sitting still and thinking about memories, about experiences and things I have read and created and been involved in over the years, unprompted by photos or collections of media online, and I am realising some very interesting things about what I seek from the world, and how I feed on this and use it to put something back into the world, which I will talk more to in this second point.
The second point is about the difference between creating short responses to lived experiences and long form responses to lived experiences. When I was younger I used to create many more long form responses to the world – longer conversations with friends, longer written works, bigger collections of photographs, longer film projects, bigger albums of music, and so on. Part of what changed was that I got busy with being an adult and all the time trappings that come with that, but part of it too has been the environments I’ve been engaging with in which to share my work. After deleting Instagram, I was profoundly surprised to see how my mind started to think less about taking quick photographs and filming short snippets of video to upload and share, and how much instead I started to think about creating long form video documentaries and films, how I started to think about building up curated collections of photographs that nobody has seen before, about digital and organic projects that simply don’t fit into the shape of Instagram. Again, this is not a moralistic declaration that taking frequent photographs and sharing them daily online is a bad thing, but for me it was restricting my capacity to think about bigger, long form projects that I could be working towards, that would be more valuable to me and more a reflection of what I can really do with time and patience and sustained concentration instead of quick bursts of capture and share.
Consider this too in relation to thought and responding to the world through words and ideas – rather than feeling something and crafting a tweet that releases some of the pressure associated with the feeling, but really contributes very little to cultural or intellectual dialogue, I have turned away from this space and instead, in keeping my commitment to this being the year of thinking, I am writing many long form compositions every day, and sharing almost none of them. I share some when I feel they will add something to an online catalogue of thought, such as these essays, but really outside of this monthly commitment to share an idea online, I am much more focused on writing books, on curating collections of essays, of reading these out and taking part in lectures, and engaging in this way. Again, not for everybody, but for me, the further I move away from advertising revenue, algorithm based modes of receiving and sharing short bursts of content, and the further I move towards quiet, patient spaces in which I can gradually build steam from many millions of grains of salt that I can collect and generate in my own time with each passing day, I feel I am doing something very right for me on a human level, and something very positive for future creative outputs.
So, that’s my thought for March – think about your inputs, think about your outputs, treat information like food entering the body in which you need to be selective about what goes in, and think about how you are responding to these inputs, about whether you are restrained by immediate, short, small responses to the world, and whether there are more patient ways of building long form responses that will serve you better in the long term. It’s like the last words of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, when he says –
“I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use -- silence, exile, and cunning.”