Sarah McIntyre (jabberworks) wrote,
Sarah McIntyre

digital technology: help! what's happening to my brain?

The Internet has turned me into a completely different person than I was ten years ago. Mostly for the better, I’d say, but I’m also a little bit scared at how little control I seem to have over the way my brain is changing. This weekend I read an article by Rebecca Solnit in the The London Review of Books, and while it rambled quite a lot, there were bits that spoke to me:

Nearly everyone I know feels that some quality of concentration they once possessed has been destroyed. Reading books has become hard; the mind keeps wanting to shift from whatever it is paying attention to to pay attention to something else. A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind. (Maybe it was a landmark when Paris Hilton answered her mobile phone while having sex while being videotaped a decade ago.)

I posted the whole review on Facebook and Jeremy Levett, quite rightly, shot holes in it:

I liked the extracts you posted, but the article is just an incoherent mess of nostalgia and anecdata punctuated by the occasional bit of absolute stupidity: "curious that someone with state of the art technology also needs postal services" (how else, exactly, are we going to get our technology delivered, or flog the last-gen stuff second-hand?) The article meanders from topic to topic, half-making arguments and firing off random non-points with a hideous sense of smugness, and it complains about *our* attention spans?

I am incredibly suspicious of this sort of article because absolutely every generation has thought that, by comparison with some rosy, idealised fiction of the past, Life Nowadays Is Too Fast, and that the new generations are Out Of Touch With The Good Things; the time they were growing up was some halcyon era where children respected their elders and people were more into great literature, whereas now everyone's made miserable by the lack of ritualised inconvenience.

Rebecca Solnit sounds like the sort of person who complained about telephones, or railways, or the deleterious effect of indoor plumbing on that wonderful sense of community you got when everyone met around the cholera-filled water-pump to gossip about their neighbours. Nostalgia is the most seductive kind of bullshit.

Heh heh. I felt a little silly after he posted that, because I’d skipped over lots of things in the article and hadn’t really thought about them, but yes, he was right. Wallowing in nostalgia’s no use to anyone. But if Levett's criticising Solnit for speaking for all of us, I feel I need to speak at least for myself. Partly because I need to concentrate long enough to figure out what’s going on, so I have control over where I’m going. I think I can get a lot more out of modern technology if I analyse what I like and dislike about it, so I can set forth deliberately on the paths I like best, and curb my behaviours that render me a bit useless.

So this is for me. But if it helps you, GOOD.

CONS: First, things I hate about what the Internet and digital technology is doing to my brain:

1. I’m not as good at reading books as I used to be. My experience is similar to Solnit’s; I’ve discovered a strange restlessness when I read. After fifteeen minutes or so, my mind wanders and I want to check e-mail, Twitter, take a photo, do something other than concentrate on the story in front of me. This has never happened before, I used to fall into books and never emerge until I hit the back cover. I can just about do this if I really make the effort, but I hate the way my brain won’t keep to task.

2. The Internet makes my brain skitter around while I'm at work. I’ve told myself time and again that I should have set hours for checking my e-mail. And I’ve set alarms for Twitter and Facebook (i.e., ‘I won’t look at them until 2:30.’) But since so much of my work is on the computer, and quite a bit of it involves looking up things online, I find myself clicking over, just for a quick peek. And when I’m working at my desk, it’s almost like there’s a sort of gravity pulling me at fairly regular intervals. I’m annoyed that I keep giving in to it.

3. I don’t know what Carpe Diem means anymore. You remember Dead Poet’s Society, when they’re all running around, seizing the day and meeting for midnight poetry reading sessions, and it’s all terribly romantic and wonderful until someone dies.

Well, I’ve always been a bit of a Carpe Diem person; I’ve done some of my best work when I’ve had a good idea, and I haven’t had time, but I did it anyway. Following my impulses has stood me well in the past. I’ve had great fun with Internet memes, and spur-of-the-moment projects, that have many times turned into paid gigs. But it’s addictive, like eating sweets. And I don’t have that sorted either.

I went to see a psychotherapist a couple years ago about my Internet and sweets addiction, and he said that the two things were almost the same in my brain; I associate both with friendship and socialising: I get together with friends for cake and a chat, or we pass sweets around the studio; I get together with people online and look at the yummy artwork they’ve made. It’s all about contact with other people and affirmation. So I’m torn between wanting to be impulsive and do what seems right at the moment, and being very disciplined with myself and abstaining. I find this so confusing.

4. I’ve gone all twitchy. I hate how, often when someone says something at dinner, I immediately want to reach for my iPhone and look up something, or tweet something, or post a photo, etc. It’s like having a conversation behind the other diner’s back, it’s rude. Or sometimes if Stuart and I are a bit quiet at meals, I get annoyed because I know it would be rude to surf the Internet, but I want to. (It’s not like we’re talking, why can’t I?) When really, I should be thinking up something interesting to talk with him about. I don’t give him enough time as it is.

I’m also worried that if I do too much on my phone around people who don’t use much modern tech, they’ll judge me. So I try not to let them see me doing it too often. But I feel a sort of grudge, thinking, they have no idea what it’s like; they’re not expected to sell their own books.

Self portrait as e-mail monkey

5. Round-robin e-mails do my head in. I used to think it was great that I could talk with other writers and illustrators online. But when I got into discussion groups, I got buried in endless e-mail conversations, and people would expect me to keep up with it. I’ve disengaged from almost all of those e-mail discussions now, and I stick to the sorts of social media where its users accept I won’t see everything, and people will contact me directly if there’s something concise that I really need to know. I think most of these sorts of conversations have moved from e-mail and forums to Facebook, which is a sort of public-private middle ground, but I don’t usually keep track of all those, either.

6. I don’t like Facebook’s false sense of privacy. When something really nasty and dramatic happens on Facebook, it’s not really a private space, the word gets out. Someone somewhere in the discussion won’t have set their privacy settings correctly, or people will gossip about things they’ve read there. Facebook’s handy for posting photos that I think are too boringly personal for a wider audience (mostly photos of people standing around in groups) and opening up discussions if I’m curious about something or need advice. But mostly I stick to forums that are totally public which, strangely, feels a bit safer. If someone’s going to attack me, everyone will see it and the attacker will come off looking much worse than me. It’s the sort of semi-private conversations on Facebook that can be the most dangerous; people can be much more harsh with each other and a lot of what the public will see are only the gossip and fall-out of the discussions, they won’t know what I actually said, in context.

7. I get tired of things packaged to go viral. I’m so sick of lists of things (10 ways to tell if your cat is cheating on you, 27 ways to tell if your mother-in-law is really Darth Vader) with animated GIFs of TV people I don’t know illustrating each point with exaggerated facial expressions. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Buzzfeed.) I love the really strange, interesting things that occasionally go viral, but most of this clickbait is tediously predictable, and turning everything into list with GIFs feels cynical. (Ah, but this is a list, you cry! ...SHUSH, you.)

Look! It's a cat!

8. I hate abbreviated text-speak that I can hardly read. It’s actually not as bad as it used to be, since phones are now easier to type on, and we don’t get charged extra for writing more words. But it makes me nervous when someone leaves me a message I can’t even understand, with no punctuation and words randomly strung together. It feels like they’re saying to me that their time is more valuable than mine; they can dash off something, while I need to spend awhile puzzling over it. And since I think they’re probably being positive, I feel I ought to respond, but I don’t know how. (Thank goodness for Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter stars, they don’t have to mean anything more than ‘Whuuuu? Well, I read it, and… um, hello.’)

9. Digital colouring makes me gnash my teeth. I don’t mind doing digital colour for small jobs, and it makes certain things SO much easier. But it also often takes just as long as painting, and I miss all the little paint blobs and happy mistakes I get while I’m pushing pigment around on paper. The repeated movements with the Wacom pen hurt my hand in a way the paintbrush and pen never do, and I get tired of drooling, glaze-eyed at the screen. Some of this will change with the ongoing developments of the Cintiq and other drawing technologies, but working on the computer doesn’t make me as happy as working on paper.

10 Irritating upgrades. Sometimes if feels like every time I’ve mastered a piece of software, I’m sent an upgrade and I have to relearn the whole thing all over again. I don’t have time to research and go through tutorials for every little thing I do. And I HATE the way I keep having to upgrade Photoshop, and how my computer goes obsolete so quickly and can’t work with the upgrades. I’m sure there are ways around all these things, but I don’t want to be a computer person, I want to draw, and not spend all my money on computer gear. There was nothing wrong with my Photoshop 5.5, it did the things I wanted it to. I’m quite simple in my digital needs, I’m mostly trying to ape old-school techniques anyway, like screen printing. I love how a pencil or dip pen doesn’t need upgrading; I can learn amazing new techniques with it and it’s the SAME PENCIL OR PEN.

I hope digital developers sort this out and make things a bit more seamless. I suspect they will. I don’t mind paying a sort of Spotify subscription fee for Photoshop, as long as I don’t have to lay out massive piles of money at unexpected moments or have to keep buying new hardware on a silly-frequent basis to accommodate upgrades. I’m willing to pay for the tools I use, but I don’t like technological surprises when I’m on a deadline; when I’m paying, I don’t want to have to compensate for everyone else who pirates the software because it’s so expensive.

11. I worry the Internet turns me into even more of a needy crowd-pleaser. I think my work suffers if I only put out what I think other people want, instead of focusing on what I love, and hoping other people might love it, too. But I think this is manageable, and I need to keep setting myself challenges that are really only for me. And not spending time blogging about things just to please other writers, but saving my blog for the times when I find something I LOVE and absolutely must tell you about. (Like Isabel Greenberg’s recent book, no one put me up to writing that blog post, I geeked out, big-time.)

Okay, those are some of my gripes. But that's not the whole story.

PROS: There’s an awful lot about digital technology that I LOVE.

1. I can connect with people I never would have had the nerve to ring on the phone or write to in a letter. I never would have got to know my co-author, Philip Reeve, for example, since he lives all the way out on Dartmoor. We became friends through the surprisingly companionable exercise of both posting daily landscape drawings. And we often discuss details of books we’re working on via Skype. I met my first studio mates through Twitter, and we found a studio within hours, also through Twitter and someone being helpful. I can hang out with my parents on Skype and we don’t have to be as shocked each time we see each other about how much we’ve aged. I can meet my sister’s chickens.

Watching Obama's Inaugural Speech from London, by Lucy Knisley

2. Fast introductions. When I got to a party, very often I’ll meet someone and already know something about their work from the Internet. We can immediately launch into an interesting conversation about the stuff we love best, instead of doing that boring little social dance of ‘what do you do?’ ‘Oh, are you an illustrator? So am I.’ (Oh no, what if he’s a terrible illustrator?! What if she’s going to try to get me to give her a free critique of her book and it’ll all go sour when I say no?) And if I don’t know the person but have an inkling that the person might be worth looking up, I can follow him or her on Twitter and then explore his or her website at leisure the next day. So much better than business cards, I was always losing those things.

3. Blogging has shaped my artwork and given me confidence: Getting a LiveJournal account was one of the best things I did in art college. (My fellow student Ellen Lindner - who eventually became my studio mate - insisted it was well worth doing, even though I was skeptical.) I grew to love the way my blog kept me publicly accountable. At first, hardly anyone was looking at it, but I still felt I needed to have something to post on a regular basis. So I’d draw things, just for the blog. And I didn’t want to look boring, so I’d go out and do exciting things and document them. There’s a kind of old-school thought that creative people need to look deep within themselves and not worry about what other people think, or trying to please them. We should hide away in a writer’s retreat and come out with a finished piece of work that no one has seen. But that misses two things: sometimes good ideas spark off through relationships, and talking with other people (including online). And this sort of internet showmanship prepares us for the kind of showing off we’re going to have to do when our work goes out into the public. Blogging helped me learn how to talk about my work, reveal it unapologetically, and have fun developing a sort of recognisable persona so people would remember me. Blogging has let me set challenges for myself, and it’s an exciting bonus when other people jump in.

4. Blogging is terribly forgiving. I know people talk about the ways we can mess up our future by posting stupid things online. But I try to keep in mind that anything I put on the Internet could be read by any potential clients or my least favourite people, and the public nature of it seems to police itself, at least for me. It’s only my good blog posts that rise to the surface. If I do a boring blog post, it seems to dissolve quietly into the ether; no one retweets it and it hasn’t done me much lasting damage. Yes, I have boring moments, what of it? There’s room for mistakes and being tediously human. I’m not going to try to develop some persona that I’m perfect; no one can relate to perfection anyway.

5. I love the visual nature of the Internet. This is great for an illustrator. Writers are tearing out their hair, wondering why so few people want to read their long online essays with no pictures, or with badly chosen clip art. Pictures are coming into their own, and, guess what, they’re no less valid than words in conveying information. There are a lot of old-school book people who think illustrations are mere decorative packaging. They might not admit to this, but if you look at their reviews, and how they list books on a page, you’ll notice scant mention of the pictures, and book listings that don’t include the illustrator’s name. I suspect many of them are visually illiterate, they wouldn’t even know how to write about the pictures; they have vague feelings of positivity or negativity toward them, and that’s all. ‘Bright, colourful, lively, gorgeous, eye-catching’… that’s about the extent of their vocabulary.

On the Internet, I can get away with posting artwork that is less than my best; I can experiment, occasionally come up with a duff drawing, and people will still respond positively; it’s quick for them to glance at a picture, they can see a human hand in it, and even a bad picture can be mildly entertaining. But a badly written, rambling long blog post (like this one, ha ha) gets killed with a click, before the reader has even registered what the writer’s trying to say. When a picture is GOOD, it gets passed around very quickly, and experienced in full. Long articles, even good ones, will be bookmarked for later, and possibly never read.

6. Comics make perfect sense on the Internet. Since people love stories, but love visuals when they read online, comic strips and short story comics are a perfect medium. Writers worry about the future of short stories and poetry, but when those things are done as comics, and done well, they fly.

7. Portfolios are instant. Remember those days of having to print out stuff to put in a big expensive folder that hardly anyone would see? I remember trying to jump off a Routemaster bus with an A2 portfolio in high wind. Bad times. I love that I can draw something and within minutes, it’s seen by the people I intended to see it.

8. Freelancers now have water coolers to gather around. Working alone, all the time, can be soul-destroyingly lonely. During my first five years of illustrating, I worked for clients abroad, and hardly knew anyone in London who loved the same things as I did. I used to hang out on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree site, and chat about being a tourist in London. I didn’t make any friends that way, but at least I had some sort of human contact. I e-mailed a lot with a couple friends back in America and that helped. Twitter’s great, when I just want to dive in for a quick look at some of the things my friends are talking about.

9. I’m discovering new music. I’ve never been on the cutting edge of music, I just haven’t had the brain space to get out there and look for new stuff. I always rely on my sister or friends to point me to new songs or albums, and I’ve gone through terrible periods of getting totally sick of my CD collection but not wanting to risk spending money on new music I didn’t know about. Now I subscribe to Spotify, so I’m able to try out new music at a whim, and build playlists for studio listening. It’s fun going on Twitter and asking for music recommendations.

10. Digital desktop publishing saves me time. If I paint an elaborate spread across two pages of a picture book and mess up, say, the shape of someone’s hand, I don’t have to go back and repaint the whole thing, or fiddle with glueing on tiny patches that might or might not work. I can go into Photoshop and fix things. I can lay out picture book roughs with the text in place, and e-mail my roughs quickly to my editor and designer without the faff of having to spend half a day going into the office, or worrying how long they will take to arrive by post.

11. My photography skills have improved dramatically. I used to be a terrible photographer. Recently I cleaned out a trunk full of old holiday snaps, and there were very few worth saving. I remember the days of film, having to save up my shots because they were expensive to develop, and the dejection of having them come back from the shop, looking nothing like I’d hoped. If I don’t like a shot now, I can retake it. And now my work has a purpose; I can put it on my blog. Whereas before, it would have gone into a bulky photo album and cluttered up my flat, probably never to be seen again. In promoting a book, it helps to have some basic photography skills. I once told off a room full of publicists for not knowing how to use a camera, and many of them slunk up to me afterward and said they were painfully aware how they fell short. Being able to take a decent photo that includes the author, the author’s book, and something that gives the shot a bit of relevant atmosphere is a Book Promotion 101 skill. It’s so much easier to learn these days, there’s no excuse for cutting off heads or having an author shot that’s mostly white ceiling.

12. I can buy almost any book in the world. When I did my MA thesis at art college, I was shocked by how few books the college had of critical writing about children’s books, specifically picture books. My university in America wasn’t even an art college, but they had rows and rows of books on picture book theory. It’s a big thing in America, people do their PhDs on it. The guy who was reading my paper seemed to think it was funny and cute that I was analysing a children’s picture book, almost like I was being a bit cheeky to choose such a fluffy, childish subject. I wrote to a course leader elsewhere, asking if she had any books on the subject she could reccomend, and never heard back from her. It if hadn’t been for the Internet and, dare I say it, Amazon, I would have had to abandon my research topic and write about William Blake or something. As it was, I was able to trawl the Internet for useful titles and finally buy books from America such as Perry Nodelman’s Words About Pictures, which blew my mind at the way picture books could be analysed.

In the article I mentioned at the beginning of the blog, Solnit writes:

I wonder sometimes if there will be a revolt against the quality of time the new technologies have brought us, as well as the corporations in charge of those technologies. Or perhaps there already has been, in a small, quiet way.

She points to trends for slow cooking and craft, and I think it’s a good point. I think people still feel a basic need to connect and do things, outside of the Internet, and I see comics fairs as a great example of this. At a comics fair, we know most of the people from the Internet.

But there’s something awesome about everyone getting out their staplers and making and printing stuff, and selling it by hand to each other, meeting each other. A Twitter avatar suddenly become alive and real when I’ve had a drink with the person and held their comic in my hands, and seen their face when I’ve exclaimed over things I like in it. And we go away and geek out online about the stuff they’ve made and make plans for the next meeting, and the things we’ll make, possibly make together.

Weighing the pros and cons, I love the Internet. But I also need help, I’m struggling quite badly; I don’t want it to turn me into a twitcher-clicker who can’t meet deadlines and who, like the woman in Bridget Jones’s Diary, dies alone and is eaten by Alsatians.


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