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Looking up and wishing I hadn't

Thursday 8th May 2014

“I have 422 friends, yet I’m lonely,” it begins, and from the willful, almost perverse missed opportunity for a weed joke, it doesn’t get any better.

Billed as “the spoken word film for an online generation”, ‘Look Up’ – a video of a poem written, performed and directed by Gary Turk – has gone viral in the past week, setting in motion ripples of self-congratulation across social media like a pebble thrown into a pond.

A screenshot from 'Look Up', a video uploaded to YouTube by Gary Turk

‘Look Up’, “the spoken word film for an online generation”.

Gary Turk / YouTube

You’ve probably already watched it, or seen it crop up on your Facebook timeline and made the conscious decision not to, so forgive my lack of regard for spoilers. The video shows, Butterfly Effect-style, how a great romance, set in motion when a bloke asks a passing babe for directions, might not have come to pass if hed been using Google Maps.

The point is, Turk intones sagely while maintaining uncomfortable eye contact, you “don’t see the chances you miss” if you’re glued to your smartphone. Scroll down for links to his website and Twitter feed. (The irony of a video about ‘antisocial media’ going viral has gone unremarked upon by precisely no commentators, and I don’t intend to set a precedent.)

From the Snow Patrol-esque instrumental to the hackneyed depiction of a relationship ‘til death do they part, ‘Look Up’ is a rose-tinted play on nostalgia and sentimentality; all that’s missing is a sepia tone and an old-timey filter. But for all its sickly sweetness, its approach strikes me as pretty cynical.

Turk interprets “the chances you miss” as the love of your life, and dangles them over your head as it’s no doubt bowed over your bloody phone. It’s a cheap trick, because the stakes, like a floater in the corner of your eye, cease to exist as soon as they’re brought into focus; there’s no real rejoinder to ‘You don’t know what you’re missing out on’, precisely because you don’t.

As such, ‘Look Up’ is impenetrable. You can’t disagree with Turk’s message, because the moment, the opportunity, the girl – if there ever was one – has already passed you by. Too bad you were busy playing 2048. (Though speculating as to whether every passer-by might be ‘The One’ is, frankly, an unhinged lens through which to view the world.)

It’s the worst kind of self-congratulatory in that it enables and encourages those feelings in others, who have dutifully shared it on their Facebook profiles with the comment “So true!” or “Love this!”, I suppose to make the point that they’re far less invested in social media than their nebbish friends, hanging on their every update. (“Hide from feed.”) I’m reminded of Joe Nunweek’s ironic point on the Pantograph Punch: “someone give me a f…ing medal for rejecting technology in the year 2014”.

But as much as I dislike the video, I have mixed feelings about its take-home message.

I’m uncomfortably aware of how much of my life is lived online, and on social media in particular. On average, I tweet nearly 20 times a day; a bot estimated that I spent 20 hours a month using Twitter – though the ‘time suck’ element of it doesn’t especially bother me. Where there’s a will to procrastinate, there’s always a way: if I didn’t have social media, I’d likely find some other way to skive off at work. (Sorry, taxpayers.)

Besides, for me, the benefits of having a public profile, being accessible, and being in the loop of breaking news and shared links outweigh the time-wasting that goes along with social media. It’s also resulted in meaningful relationships, both professional and personal, a point that ‘Look Up’ fails to acknowledge; to be honest, ‘The One’ is far more likely to follow me on Twitter than he is to stop me for directions.

Buoyed by retweets and favourites, you get the sense that your opinion is important, that you’re part of a conversation, that the world is better off for your pithy observations about signs on out-of-order vending machines or the number of Echo and the Bunnymen albums on Spotify

What concerns me more is social media as a misplaced source of self-belief. It’s difficult not to court retweets or a spike in Klout, or feel in some way validated by a ‘Like’ or a favourite. While I didn’t agree with everything Metro editor Simon Wilson wrote about writers misdirecting their energies last year, it’s true that I have gone to bed feeling satisfied after a long day of nailing it on social media.

On Twitter, in particular, it’s fairly easy to gain a following and a reputation as a commentator, and that can be addictive. Buoyed by retweets and favourites, you get the sense that your opinion is important, that you’re part of a conversation, that the world is better off for your pithy observations about signs on out-of-order vending machines or the number of Echo and the Bunnymen albums on Spotify. Which is, of course, nonsense.

But most of all, I worry that technology has fragmented my attention span. I find it hard to believe the time I spend online has not impacted on my thought processes and powers of concentration when, for much of the time, my brain feels like a browser with too many open tabs. While procrastinating from work on Facebook, I have absent-mindedly sought to procrastinate from Facebook by opening Facebook in another tab. This has happened more than once.

I fully realised the extent of this problem at the end of last year, when I spent a month overseas and mostly offline. I was surprised at how much, after the first few days of separation anxiety, my attention span recalibrated itself. My trains of thought became better paced, more considered, more incisive; I averaged three or four books a week. In part it had to do with the rejuvenation of the spirit that comes with being in an entirely new place. But in the latter half of the trip, as my access to wifi increased, I felt my focus dismantle by increments, as though it was made of Lego bricks.

‘No screens’ policies, after work or on weekends, are a nice idea, but hard to stick to when what’s at stake is a couple of hours’ less sleep. The problem, to paraphrase the chairman of France’s General Confederation of Managers on new labour laws against responding to work emails outside of work hours, is that we no longer think about “what is normal, which is to unplug, to stop permanently being at work”. It’s not the technology that’s the problem; it’s how we relate to it.

One of the problems I have with ‘Look Up’ is how it frames social media as being removed from the real world, rather than an extension of it. Turk says we don’t know what “chances” we’re missing out on when we’re hunched over our phones or inside on our laptops, but I’ll hazard a guess: nothing much. ‘Look Up’ promises a more vibrant, romantic world without technology, but it can’t deliver on it, like a Magic Eye image that reveals something mundane, like a car or cat, when you take the time to really focus.

But the persistent re-emergence of ‘Look Up’ on my Twitter and Facebook feeds has prompted me to reflect on the extent to which I live my life online, and where my next babe is coming from. (Note to self: spend more time on street corners semaphoring with maps.) I do want to engage more slowly, more deliberately, more meaningfully. ‘Look Up’, and other cloying, self-congratulatory takedowns of technology, are incentives to put down my phone, and step away from my computer, and disconnect – just perhaps not in the way that they were intended.

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