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I left Facebook last week.

It was something I’d been mulling over for a long time. I realised long ago that the thing was a total time succubus, and with my inclinations for procrastination it was quite a hindrance to productivity. But I’m a sentimental devil, and I couldn’t bring myself to part with my hard-earned friends, many in far places, with whom this was my sole connection. I also hoped that I could show some strength of will and be more disciplined about the time I spent gawping at it…

Alas, the gawping continued. And other, more pressing things began to niggle at me. The insidious advertising: sometimes blatantly there in the newsfeed, completely uninvited; but more often through ‘sponsored links’, things that friends ‘like’ showing up. (Note, the first thing on the drop-down menu at the top right-hand corner, before account or privacy settings, is ‘advertise’).

This was only an aspect of a newsfeed that was becoming ever more disinteresting, or rage-inducing, due to a growing accumulation of meaningless ‘friends’, some of whom were turning out to be racists, fascists, or just total blockheads (no Tories though, thank goodness). Even if they weren’t themselves posting racist/fascist/blockhead material, posts that they ‘liked’ would appear: “Dear British Goverment, i think our country z shite becuz u hav let in all the forein immigrint scum n they hav takin all tha houses and tha jobz and the money n they r the reason that i am a fat twat with no grammar or other skillz.”, “Dear Tayside Police, why were yooz out pure catchin me speedin when i seen on the news their wiz old ladies bein mugged n that?”…

Get your ignoramus beliefs and piss poor grammar out of my eyes.

Nonsense like that contributed to a growing unease about the way that Facebook leads you to accumulate people. I have no interest whatsoever in sharing my life with fascists, et al, and yet here they were, in my face every day. Not to mention countless posts about children I’ve never met, dogs whose existence I care nothing for, what people eat for all meals of the day, what time they go to bed, what time they get up, whether they took a shit that morning, what car they have, what phone they have, what fecking handbag they desire, when they’re drunk/hungover/high/bleeding/vomming/dying – oh wait, they’re not dying, just hungover, bleeding and vomming. (And I can’t deny having made such posts myself). But an irritating etiquette has emerged whereby you’re obliged to be ‘friends’ with co-workers, ex-classmates, ex-lovers, wives of distant cousins, friends of parents – a whole array of people you would never normally have communicated details of your personal life to. And people never move into the past… That’s a bit creepy…

A friend of a friend used an analogy I liked – normally in life you have a jar, and there’s a little hole in the bottom of that jar, and as people become less important to you they get smaller and shuffle down and eventually fall out the bottom of your jar. But with Facebook – there’s no hole in the jar! People just collect and collect until you’re drowning in amongst them.

I’m also, I think, augmenting the ‘grumpy old Scotswoman’ aspect of my personality. Conversely to communicating with people you wouldn’t normally communicate with, you also end up not communicating with the people you would want to communicate with. Increasingly, people can’t be bothered to call, or to write an email, or (proper old school, I know) to send anything in the post. ‘Liking’ a friend’s new profile picture has become all that’s needed to let people know you’re thinking of them, and that’s rubbish. I took the time a couple of weeks ago to write some proper emails, and it was wonderful. Wastebook-based communication, in contrast, is SO superficial, and vacuous, and narcissistic. Well, I unsubscribe from the enforced Facebook ephemera!

Just this week, reading about status anxiety in ‘The Spirit Level’ has confirmed to me that I’ve made the right decision. Worry about social status is something that has become a huge burden to people in economically rich countries, and Pusbook* totally exasperates this, plays and even depends upon it.  Whether you are willing to admit it or not, anyone that uses it regularly gets drawn into waiting for friends to like or comment on their posts. For some people, especially teenagers now, their social status truly lives and dies by the sword of Pusbook. So, I thought, why add to all the other anxieties already assaulting me in this post-modern century? Since deleting only days ago, I’ve felt a notable decline in anxiety, like I’ve been unburdened from a pernicious responsibility. I feel almost emancipated!

There are things I will miss. It is undeniably useful for organising events and keeping up with developments in my spheres of interest. I had a variety of pages I followed for aesthetic or literary fixes (Magnum Photos, Rumi, Beware of Images, for example), and for quality or leftfield news (Al Jazeera English, BBC World Service, Jezebel). I will miss having a network of knowledge and advice at my fingertips. And I will miss spying on people who I perhaps haven’t spoken to in a long time but like to check in on. Equally, perhaps, there are people who liked to spy on me from time to time and will miss me too…

But deleting my Facebook will be a pretty good indication of which friends are important to me: they are the ones that already have my email or phone number, or I have theirs. They are the ones that, when I posted that I would be leaving, got in touch. They are the ones that I made sure to let know, because I want to keep them… As for the others, it’s once more up to serendipity to bring us back together…

*Local slang name, from the Scots vulgar vernacular for ‘face’.

My unexpected diversion in May…

Dallas is not a Mecca for the crazed or the destitute, like San Francisco, LA, Miami, or NYC. People here work. Be it the overweight white man or the careworn black lady (to pick a couple of stereotypes), everybody I saw here was dressed for work and going somewhere with a purpose. Even the people loitering in the surprisingly numerous green spaces of the city looked like they were loitering with a purpose – a free afternoon hard-earned.

Dallas, or Texas at all, was the last place, really the last place I expected to be at this time. I knew nothing about Dallas, other than that JFK was assassinated there, and there was oil money. I was far from pleased when Canadian Immigration said they were sending me back there (the point of departure of my last connecting flight) – what on earth was I going to do in Dallas?? But there seemed no point in not making the most of it before my unanticipated journey home.

Texas has its own special colour which I first spotted from the air – sandy brown with shiny bits on. The part 70s, part space-agey Dallas-Fort Worth Airport epitomised this. My flight home not being for another day, Carlos, the exuberantly friendly and helpful hostel manager, hustled me onto a train downtown to explore for the afternoon. He was so enthusiastic that I rushed to catch the train without even stopping to eat some lunch or drink some water, both of which I’d been thinking about the entire journey to the hostel.

Downtown Dallas appeared as the Texan panorama had from the sky: brown, shiny, and huge! There are a remarkable amount of green spaces – plazas and tree-lined boulevards, extravagant fountains of gushing, chlorinated water – amongst the huge, shiny skyscrapers. Everything is incredibly clean. It’s almost to the point of creepiness, like in Mountain View, a bizarre little town we visited in Silicon Valley populated almost exclusively by IT professionals. Or soullessness, as in the dull and utterly untempting streets of Reno… But not quite. Dallas teeters on the edge of those things, but pulls it back with its proud and apparent work ethic, and its strong awareness of and pride in its Texan identity. Somehow it has earned the right to be clean and shiny.

Despite all the things you hear about Texans – their gun-toting ways, their Republican inclinations, the prevalence of obesity and worse, racism – I was more taken by these people than the square, characterless white folks of Reno, or the dead-behind-the-eyes sad souls of Miami. They’ve got spirit here: a culture and a history they’re proud of, and whether it’s to my taste or not, as a Scot, I respect that.

I walked from the ‘historic’ district, which contains some beautiful, antiquated and largely decaying buildings from the pre-skyscraper days but is now principally a transport hub to outlying suburbs and barrios, up to West Village, the ‘college’ district where the ‘kids’ hang out. Whereas the historic district is a sea of black workers making their way home (I sometimes find it uncomfortable to note such distinctions, but the racial divide in the States is palpable), the kids in West Village were a mass of blonde clones clad head-to-toe in labels from the designer boutiques that comprised the area. Fake blondes all with the same straw shade of hair, so sure that they’re well-dressed because they’ve paid exorbitant amounts for each item… To my eye they are utterly styleless.

I went to an upmarket taco place Carlos had recommended which was indeed delicious, despite its clientele of vapid college girls and moneyed Latinos with attitudes. It tasted right out of D.F. and I had terrible pangs of nostalgia and longing for dodgy taquerías and shady tavernas, dancing to bad Latin pop and drinking 50c beers, midnight taxi rides across swathes of dark, unknown city with friends made only an hour before…

Carlos did make me almost sorry later that I wasn’t staying longer. On Thursdays he takes the guests for a Country and Western dance lesson, then for beers and a face-reddening attempt at the mechanical rodeo bull. The Friday night excursion is to the biggest honky-tonk saloon in the world, which contains 23 bars and holds 10 000 people! How unfortunate i was leaving on a Wednesday.

I slept unbelievably soundly that night, though my dreams were not peaceful (they rarely are). I didn’t wake up once, and awoke into a clean morning light that felt like the glow of snow on a Christmas morning…


A few weeks ago I sat with a couple of friends, flippantly contemplating the future of society as we know it, how it could be End of Days after all. Not by some biblical, supernatural cataclysm, but that it could be the end of the current political and economic order. We debated how this might come about – internal governmental collapse, economic ruin, the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse… I favoured an uprising by the people at the bottom, not in some Marxist class-war glory but base and brutish, violence and destruction en masse until total lawlessness ruled.

I didn’t expect it quite so soon…

London and now numerous other English cities are being plagued by night-time riots after the shooting dead of a young black man, Mark Duggan, in a North London district last week. What began as a peaceful protest in Tottenham on Saturday has descended into a chaos where all initial meaning has been lost and it has become an excuse for gangs of ‘youths’ (I’m loathe to use such a loaded term) to rampage, loot, and destroy.

Of course the Tory government rhetoric is full of lingo like ‘criminality’ and ‘disrespect to property’. What about disrespect to community, morality, humanity? And what are the causes underlying this uncondonable behaviour?

The broken

This should not have been unforeseen. The factors that caused me to make my prediction only weeks earlier are there for the seeing: a failing economy, high unemployment, public services feeling the axe of austerity, disillusionment with ineffective and aloof government – these are the immediate factors which always contribute to social unrest. However what was also apparent was the deeper, long-term issues that affect this society – and what differentiates these riots to those of previous generations: the disintegration of community, the hegemony of greed and consumerism, the increasingly egotistical and un-empathetic youth, and the alarming arrival of violent crime for pleasure rather than gain.

Of course these ‘youths’ are responsible for their own actions – many are amoral, violent, self-interested, or at the very least susceptible to the herding of those that are. The acts being seen at the moment are displays of blatant thievery, thuggery, thrill of destruction, and ignorance with absolutely no political message in mind. But these young people have turned out like this for a reason. Why weren’t the rioters of previous generations making such displays of greed? Because only now are we seeing the culmination of successive decades of capitalism-over-community governance, beginning, of course, with (that lady who I tend to lazily pin all of society’s woes on) Thatcher, perpetuated by Blair and his desecration of Labour party values, the baton now picked up by rubbery-faced (it seems to be some sort of Eton affliction) Cameron.

Capitalism FAIL

Three decades of materialistic, consumerist culture shoved at us from all angles has created a generation fundamentally defined by ‘stuff’ and the ownership of it. This is pervasive in pop culture – music videos full of stuff, songs about having stuff or wanting stuff, whole TV series – reality and otherwise – about people who have tons of stuff. The want-and-have mentality fostered by the banks throwing credit at people in the late 90s and early 2000s; the transition from Generation X to Generation YWhy can’t I have it now? All, of course, beginning with the greed-is-good ethos promoted in the 80s. As one of the (fierce and admirable) young men appearing on the Newsnight debate last night (see 15min>) said, where are the role models? When people look up and see corporate bankers still raking in millions, having ruined homes and whole countries, and going unpunished, how can we expect those at the bottom to uphold the morals those at the top do not? It is a serious symptom of the spectacular failings of neoliberalism. When ownership and greed are the tenets of society, we cannot expect people to grow up with values pertaining to anything other than self-interest.

Cameron, you and your kin have created this monster, this ‘feral youth’ as you like to call them – now YOU have to live with the consequences.

No race necessary

It does concern me that some of the foreign (and probably domestic) Leftist/alternative media are marking this as some sort of uprising of the oppressed and a revolutionary landmark in the class/race/equality struggle. They need to take off their idealist’s spectacles because that is not what’s happening. I am staunchly of the Left but there is need for realism here. The best we can hope for out of this mobbery is that there will be a realisation of the issues facing British youth (and I say British. The riots may only have been in England but being Scottish and smug about this is kidding ourselves – we suffer the same issues here).

I fully await, however, an out-spewing of vehemence and dogmatic rage, calls for punishment, etc, etc, in the mainstream media which the majority of the public will dogmatically fall in with, jiggling in their armchairs, brandishing their fists over breakfast, not having learned anything about the questionable morality of their news sources from the only-the-other-week phone-hacking scandal. And unfortunately the Tories look set to highjack the moral/community aspect as a means to nag on about Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ hypocrisy and their backward, traditionalist ‘family’ values.

Another worrying possibility is that right wing factions within the Conservative party, the (quite ridiculous) UKIP, and, more potently, the BNP and EDL, will use this is a platform to pedal their anti-immigration/racist bilge. Though long-running police harassment of Black and Asian youth, and the death of Mr Duggan, have been factors in fuelling the rage on the streets, these cannot possibly be defined as ‘race riots’. Those of all colours have been caught out joining with the mob: it is the mob against the establishment, no race necessary.

Hope or death?

There may be hope. Like I say, we might begin to take more notice of the issues that have broken our communities and brutalised our young, and accept that money has to be spent on social programs to even begin to heal this. Read this excellent article by youth worker Camila Batmanghelidjh, who tells the story from the ground and outlines the issues so much more expertly than I can. Reading about a 22 year-old rapper with a strong grasp of the issues taking his message to both the street and to Downing Street, and watching those young men stand their ground against a fat old bigot and a ragey mother on Newsnight, fills me with pride.

End of Days? Let us dare to place hope in the young…

On a personal level, writing has traditionally been a source of catharsis for me, allowing me to take all the things out of my head and lay them before me for examination, clarification. Like Dumbledore’s ‘pensieve’ in Harry Potter, as a friend once pointed out.

On a practical level, I was skilled at the academic-style writing required at university, and at the journalistic writing I did at Honduras This week. But that impersonal style is not what the blog calls for; it asks for something a little more intimate, something from the pensieve, taking me into an uncomfortable arena…

playfire.com

Blogging is inherently personal, but I am not inclined to sharing information from the inside – not even with close friends, unless provoked. Since my current audience is likely only people I know, how much should I let you in?

The narcissism of it bothers me as well. How arrogant to think that anyone should care to know me or what I have to say? But then, that surely has to be an accepted truth of any writing. Blogging is merely an amplification of this in the post-modern culture of ephemera and individualism (are we still in the post-modern era? Have we moved on? I’m not sure).

Being given to perfectionism, in other spheres of writing spending days on a paragraph alone, or weeks editing a piece (there is always swathes of gumph to be deleted), the blog is again anathema, it’s ephemeral, unperfected nature like some over-confident teenager. But I must remember it is just that – ephemera, and whatever imperfections I post will soon be lost and forgotten…

If I am to improve and explore as a writer, I must overcome these anxieties. If I am to temper my tendency for introspection, my over-enthusiasm for the comma, my often unnecessary wordiness, I have to put things out there, test them.

Welcome to my pensieve…