Stories for days

I read a book recently. The Lonely City. I don’t think any book I have read this year captures my mood for the year better than this book. The book talks about loneliness – no shocker there. But it talks about that specific, anonymous, discoloured loneliness you can only get in cities, made even more incongruous because you are constantly surrounded.

The author, Olivia Laing, talks about some of the best contemporary art and how so much of it was born from persons who were intensely, and always, lonely. Edward Hopper for example. I hadn’t seen his paintings before 2020. And then I saw a post online talking about how the entire year in lockdown has felt like being in a Hopper painting. If you look at his paintings, it usually shows a single subject sitting in a cold, isolated, dispassionate city scape. He used a lot of greens and blues in his paintings. Laing calls this the ‘Hopper Green’ in her novel. It reminds me of that depressing green you’ll often find in abandoned diners or public washrooms. If I had to put a feeling to the colour, I would say it reminds me of when you’re walking around in the rain but the water has already seeped into your shoes, so you just walk around in silent, wet, misery.

There are a bunch of other artists she talks about (including one who worked as a janitor and made art his whole life, never told anyone about it, and died alone in a room, where they discovered all his art only because his neighbours complained about the stink coming from his home), but towards the end she talks about a man named Josh Harris. The man made a bunch of money in the dot com boom. But he became disgruntled with what was happening around him quite quickly. He predicted that the internet would take on a much less benign form in a couple of years, it’ll become a space where every single person will compete for visibility for the most mundane things, and showcase their lives to the fullest, dystopian degree just because they can. And well, he wasn’t wrong. To prove that he was right about the ways in which human nature will interact with constant access and visibility, he held a social experiment (there is a movie on this too). He invited strangers (anyone and everyone was welcome, it was on a first come first serve basis) to live in a house for a period of time. All the amenities they could want would be provided to them. They would be denied only two things – privacy, and the option of exiting the house before the experiment was over. Every single part of the house was covered with cameras that streamed the happenings of the house to the outside world constantly.

The result? People started behaving in bizarre ways. They started acting out for attention. They became hostile towards their housemates for no reason. And almost all of them became depressed beyond measure. They were simultaneously fighting to be the most visible in the house, while feeling increasingly disconnected with reality the more air time they got. The experiment had to be shut down (for obvious reasons). Harris wasn’t happy though. He wanted to take this live streaming, this shit show of total visibility to its logical conclusion. So, he set up cameras in his own house. The idea was to record himself and his partner for 30 days (I think, could have been longer) no matter what. Every bit of their lives (and I mean every single bit – including washroom breaks) was made available to a voyeuristic public. This time though, the people watching could also give live feedback. And they did. Harris and his partner started behaving in the same way the participants of the first experiment had – they became more aggressive, less sensitive, more radical, and more depressed. They started fighting more, because as it turns out, that was what got people going. And as they fought, they noticed that the public opinion was usually with Harris’ partner and not him. When the experiment ended, the couple broke up, and Harris moved to an unknown location – became a recluse for the next couple of years.

Now, as shocking as this was at the time, it is much more uncomfortable to read now. Not only did the man predict (with uncanny precision) how the internet would change all of us, but the effects most of us feel (at least I know I do) are the same. I can’t stop putting stuff out there. And most of the times it doesn’t even make me happy. I want to post even though I feel deep revulsion for my online persona as soon as I am done posting, but I still can’t stop doing it. The worst of it is the Instagram stories. I don’t know what it is about them. Maybe because they are temporary, I don’t feel like I need to put in effort and can post whatever I want. But it isn’t that effortless either. I always think about it. I keep going back to the app, and whenever I do, the first thing I check is my story. How many people viewed it? How many people reacted? What does the story look like from someone else’s account? I’m not even as bothered about comparing myself to others on social media as I am to comparing myself to what I put up online. Anyway, I could keep going on about this. Go check out the book if you have time, I promise it is worth it.