The World Seen Through Social Media Isn’t Real

Following our practical post about escaping social media once and for all, a couple of people emailed to say they can’t quit social media because of reasons.

So don’t. I’m not telling you what to do, honestly. I’m inviting you to think about it and, if you want to, to gradually and calmly, piece by piece, extract yourself from the tangle in which you’ve found yourself. They kidnapped your time and attention gradually and calmly, piece by piece. That’s the way to leave too. You won’t regret it.

If you need extra strength to go against the grain, I find the following quote from Jaron Lanier very powerful. It’s almost like a mantra to me now. I carry it around in a backroom of my brain and I summon it whenever I idly think about re-joining social media to see how some kid from school looks like now or because there’s something for me to promote. Sorry, here’s Lanier:

You, you, you have the affirmative responsibility to invent and demonstrate ways to live without the crap that is destroying society.

I know it’s hard to swim against the tide when you have limited time and money and reach. But it’s important to do it anyway. The rich and powerful certainly manage it. In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell writes:

while seemingly every kid in a restaurant is watching bizarre, algorithmically determined children’s content on YouTube, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both severely limited their children’s use of technology at home. As Paul Lewis reported for The Guardian, Justin Rosenstein, the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button, had a parental control feature set up on his phone by an assistant to keep him from downloading apps. Loren Brichter, the engineer who invented the “pull to refresh” feature of Twitter feeds regards his invention with penitence: “pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. In the meantime he has “put his design work on the back burner while he focusses on building a house in New Jersey.” Without personal assistants to commandeer our phones, the rest of us keep on pulling to refresh, while overworked single parents juggling work and sanity find it necessary to stick iPads in front of their kids’ faces.

And here’s an additional thought that’s been rolling around in my head lately: the world seen through social media isn’t real. Zuckerberg might not know it but the Metaverse has been here for ages.

I recently started listening to the second series of Jon Ronson’s Things Fell Apart. It’s a piece of investigative journalism concerning the so-called culture wars.

When I listened to the first series last year it was with genuine curiosity. I’d heard of, for example, “pizzagate” but I didn’t understand quite was was going on. I knew about the right-wing Christian aversion to abortion but I didn’t know why it was suddenly all the rage beyond the American south. Ronson’s show made sense of these things.

I wasn’t naturally interested in those topics per se, but thanks to comments I’d seen on social media they’d snagged my interest. What was real? Was any of this a threat to me? Would it change anything in my neighbourhood? Did I need to know something about this thing to understand culture today? I wasn’t consciously asking those questions, but my amygdala was.

They were zombie thoughts. Automated fretful horizon-scanning when I could have been looking at clouds.

Now that I’m off social media (did I mention that?), the second series of Jon Ronson’s thing is hard to listen to. It’s boring and unpleasant. I’m no longer interested in “making sense of the culture wars.” They’re not relevant to me.

Let’s face it. The culture wars are made up. Usually by right-wing newspapers and technology firms, paid for by billionaires and oligarchs with an interest in destabilising free will and non-Russian public institutions.

Not being able to listen to that radio show made me understand that the world seen through social media is horribly distorted. Everyone knows this already, but now I know it viscerally because, for the first time in 20 years, I’ve been spending time in the world without the distortion lens.

Life’s much better without the distortion lens.

You also heal surprisingly quickly, which gives me hope. Delete your accounts. Go back to real life.

You too, Jon Ronson. Get back out into the field and quit with the Twitter shit. It’s enough already.

There’s a bit in The Circle by Dave Eggers where the Last Man Standing (i.e. a character not on social media and spends his days making authentic clay pots or something) is hounded by drones until he drives his car off a bridge. It never really rang true to me. Here in the real world, I don’t feel hassled by “tech.” The people Jon Ronson shows being bullied on Facebook are, well, on Facebook. You really can switch it off and get on with your life.

I’m not curious about culture wars any more. More interesting to me are Momus’ thoughts about how the algorithm might influence the real world. And more interesting still, are the actual affairs of the real world: things like ant colonies (literally, not metaphorically) and new live comedy, and publishing real books, using digital technology to make real things happen instead of distracting from them, and simply hanging out.

Real life, folks. I’m telling you. It’s unbeatable. Until it is! I’d say there’s “no competition” but the emails I get from people who “can’t” re-join us on the outside strongly suggest otherwise.

Listen to me preach about this, eh? I’ve only been free of it for six months. But that’s how good it is. Listen! I’m a voice from the other side and you don’t even need a ouija board to hear it!

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A nice alternative to social media is our mailing list, which you can join for a free cheerful monthly newsletter.

Time Too Precious

Do you remember the naturalist and mountaineer John Muir? Of course you do. I called him “Dreamer John” and he said “the mountains are calling and I must go.”

Well, his friend William Badè said this about John Muir in his introduction to Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.

[John] concluded that life was too brief and uncertain, and time too precious, to waste upon belts and saws; that while he was pottering in a wagon factory, God was making a world; and he determined that, if his eyesight was spared, he would devote the remainder of his life to a study of the process.

Eyesight spared? Wikipedia explains:

In early-March 1867, an accident changed the course of his life: a tool he was using slipped and struck him in the eye. The file slipped and cut the cornea in his right eye and then his left eye sympathetically failed. He was confined to a darkened room for six weeks to regain his sight, worried about whether he would end up blind. When he regained his sight, “he saw the world—and his purpose—in a new light”. Muir later wrote, “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.” From that point on, he determined to “be true to [himself]” and follow his dream of exploration and study of plants.

Escape! When work almost ruined him, he had an epiphany in quiet darkness, then answered the call of the hills.

Dreamer John again:

There’s plenty more Escapological wisdom in our forthcoming Issue 16, available to pre-order now in print and digital formats. Do so and rejoice!

Click, Click, Swish, Click, Click

I’m researching an artist called Giacomo Patri.

When the school he worked for was shut down by McCarthyism for being closely associated with the labour movement, he turned to independent creative practice.

Patri took to crafting and printing a graphic memoir of linocuts at home.

In the foreword to a 2016 commercial reprint, his sons remember the presence of a printing press in their home:

The whole process produced a memorable, rhythmic, ‘click, click, swish, click, click,’ against the background of the whirling sound of the electric motor and the smell of fresh printer’s ink throughout the house.

Isn’t this a lovely recollection? It reminds me that there is, as Tove Jansson put it, a right kind of work.

How to Get Rid of Things

If you’re trying maximise your freedom by downsizing or if you just want to benefit from minimalism in general, you’ll sooner or later find yourself in a phase of “getting rid of things.”

What is the best way to get rid of things? I mentioned that this guy was wasteful in getting rid of things quickly by taking them to charity shops or the tip.

Charity shops, I’m sorry to tell you, will probably also take your things to the tip. Or leave them outside the shop in garbage bags ready to be taken to the tip. Charity shops are overburdened with donations. Only the finest junk will make it onto their shelves. Besides, charity (in the sense of large businesses posistioning themselves as middlemen) sucks. We need social reform, not charity. Their brands are sometimes toxic. I like the idea that they keep used-but-useful goods in circulation, but they’re increasingly crap at this.

So, here are the best ways to get rid of stuff, in order:

1. Don’t acquire it in the first place. This is probably too late if you’re currently purging, but it’s worth remaining vigilant to acquisition. Getting rid of stuff is only one side of the methods of minimalism; the other and arguably most important side is not buying or otherwise acquiring things to begin with. You can adopt a minimum acquisition ethic any time and future purges will be less onerous.

2. Sell it in person to non-charity-based second-hand shops (especially book and music shops). This is good for batches of things, makes money for yourself, and keeps used-but-useful things in circulation.

3. Sell it in person via Craigslist or Gumtree or similar. People will collect it from your house if you make it clear that you won’t deliver. Top tip: charging a token amount of money makes people take the transaction more seriously than if you list it for free (collectors of free junk often never turn up). Selling is generally better than giving away for free, not just because you’ll make useful beer (or escape fund) money from the exchange but also because the thing you’re getting rid of will go to someone who actually wants or needs it instead of greedily accepting something just because it’s free and sticking it uselessly in a cupboard or on a big pile of other hoarded junk.

4. Sell it online with eBay, Etsy, Vinted, Depop, etc. You’ll get the market value for whatever you’re ditching, but this isn’t as good as in-person selling because (a) it will involve a trip to the post office and (b) you’ll miss out on local economies (i.e. talking to someone who lives nearby, keeping value in local circulation instead of sending it inevitably to the largest population centres and Silicon Valley-type mediators via an app).

5. Leave it somewhere it can be taken for free: a community givebox is ideal but a dry street corner can work too. Check back to make sure it’s been taken: don’t be a posh fly-tipper.

6. Give it away for free with Freecycle, Craigslist or Gumtree but see reservations in 3 and 4 above.

7. Donate it to a charity shop in the hopes that they won’t bin it.

8. Give it to a friend. This is good and avoids the charity shop problem, but they might only take it to be kind to you (rather than really wanting or needing it) and it will still be in your personal/social ecosystem and therefore potentially retrievable or psychologically still part-owned; better to ditch it more thoroughly.

9. Smash it up and put it in the bin. Which is less effort than:

10. Take it to the tip. Ideally on foot (see my walk review in Issue 14) so as not to stink up the world with your disgusting car fumes. When junking something, remember it will be dead forever and any value that might still be extracted from it will be gone. The profit of binning something or taking something to the tip is pure ullage: the valuable absence or emptiness that will take that object’s place.

General guidance when getting rid of stuff: do it gradually, not in one big purge. You’re less likely to dispose of things productively or thoughtfully when trying to purge quickly.

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Minimalism! Not written about that for a while. Feels good. There’s a guide to minimalism in Issue Three and I’m Out.

Letter to the Editor: Barbados

Thank you, Reader B, for a lovely handwritten letter.

Here follows a handwritten list of Escapological book recommendations from, of all the places I could hope to find a readership, Barbados.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to Do Nothing

Look at all those stickies! How can a book with this title, in a field I have been reading and thinking about for twenty years, contain so much new information and perspective? Jenny Odell is amazing.

Incidentally, it’s not about “quitting Facebook.” It’s about everything.

I suspect I’ll write a review of this book for the forthcoming Issue 16.

117 Beds

Three years ago, I quit having a fixed place to live in, leaving my home for various locales across the UK and beyond. The notes in my phone reveal that, to date, I’ve slept in 117 beds, in locations ranging from the Scottish Highlands and coastal Dorset to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and the avant-garde Georgian capital of Tbilisi, all while holding down a full-time job.

I’d rather have no job and a single home base to be honest, but this is certainly a tempting way to live. Just think of the opportunity it would afford for adventure.

The writer Lydia Swinscoe has embraced minimalism and utterly challenged the Western ideals of permanence and security, ideals so ingrained that many people wouldn’t even think to question them. When the source of the modern malaise is so hard to put your finger on sometimes, why not question the big ones? The facts of life that are too big to see sometimes? Maybe living in one place instead of nomadically is where we’ve been going wrong.

In any event, she’s footloose and fancy-free: in London one minute and Tbilisi the next. Come on, that’s so cool.

Living nomadically, mostly out of a 65-litre backpack, I’ve become deeply aware of just how much “stuff” we collect but don’t need. Everywhere – on TV, online, pasted across billboards, on the sides of buses – we’re bombarded with materialistic messages luring us to buy the latest gadgets, kitchen appliances (read: air fryers), home furnishings, newest fashion trends and miracle beauty products. I’m convinced it’s a trap.

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Issue 16 (June) is now available to pre-order.

Nor Iron Bars a Cage

I was looking at Escape Everything! today and found myself feeling very happy and proud of it.

It’s really no bad book, you know. And it’s aged well.

This is a small thing, but I enjoyed the Houdini quotes at the top of each section and chapter. Each quote is appropriate for the words that follow. I’m especially fond of “Here follows a long description of a machine” for the section about “The Trap.” And I like “Tear it into little bits” at the start of the Bureaucracy chapter since it’s taken from a book called Houdini’s Paper Magic (you know, because Bureaucracy is paperwork and I’m about to tell you to scorn it).

I remember pouring over library books about Houdini and digital archive scans of his magic books, trying to find just the right quotes.

Earlier drafts mixed some non-Houdini quotes in with the Houdini ones and I’m glad I spotted the error of that: using Houdini quotes throughout the book reinforces the central “Escapology” metaphor and almost gives the impression that Houdini himself is guiding you through the book.

The illusion is only broken once. The introduction does not have a Houdini quote. Instead it has this:

Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage — Richard Lovelace.

Rar! I’m annoyed by this. The draft I submitted to the publisher attributed the quote to Houdini because I had a replica signed photograph on my fridge door on which The Master had scrawled those very words.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Houdini was quoting from a poem by Lovelace.

The fact checker sent a note about this, saying it would require correction. I considered an attribution along the lines of “Houdini, quoting James Lovelace” but it seemed a bit longwinded and, probably feeling the pressure of the deadline, I took the path of least resistance and gave the editors my nod of approval.

I wish I hadn’t. The fixed version is some artless No-Maj shit.

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But never mind! The paperback version of Escape Everything! is called I’m Out and it’s once again available at our shop. The publisher recently sent me a box of 50 copies to apologise for something else, so 100% of the cover price will help to keep the lights on at Escape Towers. Get your copy here.

Wanted: Woes

We have a column in New Escapologist called Workplace Woes. It’s an opportunity for readers to anonymously blow off steam about their jobs, past or present.

In Issue 14, for example, there was the story of an office Halloween Party that went from embarrassing to worse. There was also the tale of workplace racism out of the clear blue sky. Oh! And the story of animals escaping from a pet shop.

If you’d like to vent your spleen, please send me your Workplace Woes by email. All stories will be treated with utmost confidence. That’s the whole point.

Please keep them under 200 words (no need for elaborate scene setting: just cut right to the chase). Stories can be funny or anger-inducing or a little of both. It’s all good.

It would be particularly nice to hear some woes from the worlds of retail or hospitality and also some outdoorsy woes (e.g. construction industry), but if your story is simply office-based then that’s good too!

The deadline for Issue 16 is April 15th but any latecomers can be saved for future editions.

Thanks everyone. Over to you.

Tiny Cowboys

Do I regret getting into the whole tiny-house nightmare? Of course not.

Thus says James Campbell in his candid account of tiny house life. He was ripped off by cowboy tiny house manufacturers who promised an out-of-the-box solution for £65,000.

There were so many problems. The house that was delivered was not the house in the brochure. We had ordered a pitched roof, so that solar panels would be pointed at the winter sun. The house that arrived had a pretty much flat roof.

There were dangerous and infuriating problems with the electrics and the plumbing. Rats soon moved into the walls. Inexpert technicians were repeatedly flown in from Lithuania, despite the company purporting to be UK-based and ecologically-minded.

We quickly got to the point where we asked them to take it away and give us our money back. They refused. We looked at suing them for mis-selling. Our solicitor reported they were in so much debt that if we did and won, they would go bankrupt and we would get nothing.

I mention Chris’s account as another example of how things can go wrong when fleeing the daily grind or trying to live alternatively. Nobody really thinks its going to be easy but James’ problems were quite extreme and unlike, say, Mark Boyle’s efforts to adapt to a life on the land, they’re hard to see as a worthy challenge when you’ve paid through the nose for a commercial solution. Chris didn’t go into the project looking for a challenge. It was just supposed to work.

Greenwashing is real and so, I suppose, is escapewashing. Capitalism is watching: it’s forever on the lookout for lifestyles to sell. Chris couldn’t have done much to avoid being ripped off, but there is at least one teachable moment:

One day I was given a copy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s first River Cottage Cookbook. I devoured it and swiftly realised my future would involve living in the countryside, doing my best to be self-sufficient.

Maybe don’t completely change your whole life after reading one book. Especially a cookbook. Especially a cookbook written by a wealthy person who stands to get even wealthier by it. By all means be inspired by watching Escape to the Country if you like, but read, read, read. Proper books. Case studies. Talk and listen to people who have done it.

Do your research. Downsize gradually (Chris writes that he purged 90% of his stuff quite quickly — and unproductively too, by taking it to charity shops or the tip). Pilot the new idea by testing it first (which, to be fair, Chris sort-of did by moving into a cheap caravan before buying the tiny home).

Or, y’know, just jump in. But do it with eyes open and ready to fail.

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New Escapologist’s back catalogue is packed with case studies of escape. Download the complete first volume (Issues 1-13) on PDF for £25 or pre-order the forthcoming summer issue in print or digital formats.

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