Turning off the news churn provides the space to think, learn and write. Photo: Getty
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Is it possible to live a modern contemplative life?

It has taken years of patient self reflection to realise that my obsessive reading of the news was eroding my well being.

My biggest project in life so far has been the systematic elimination of my crippling anxiety. After quitting a high stress job and stepping away from family pressures, I found that the constant feeling of stress, exhaustion and ache had largely abated. I longed for a complete banishment of that anxiety, and in my search for solutions, I discovered a dark reservoir within myself, contaminating my thoughts; the fear of missing out.

The whimsical acronym, FOMO, conceals a serious problem, say psychologists. With so much of our lives embedded in our ever-changing social media feeds, we are increasingly afraid of being out of touch, of missing out on our friends’ lives, of losing our cool, our edge. That fear goes to our very core of human consciousness, playing into our inbuilt survival drives. In some people, the mental health consequences of FOMO can lead to anxiety and depression; a recent University of Essex study observed that “those whose psychological needs were deprived – particularly those needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness” – were likely to have a higher level of FOMO.

A child of the Nineties, I’ve grown up with this fear, as social media has gradually taken over so much of our private and public lives. Humans have always strived and hoped for freedom, success and connectedness, but social media’s active colonisation of these desires leaves us little choice except to take part in it. In a handful of years, much of ordinary life has moved to its pages, and its scrolling format favours immediacy over depth. It is no longer enough to do good work, or to raise a family well. In art, an artist must be present and visible online, constantly commenting. A politician who works tirelessly can be destroyed by one inadvertent tweet. A mother can be judged on each minute detail of the appearance and behaviour of her children, and on every aspect of her parenting. Many jobs require a social media presence, and employers increasingly police employees’ accounts while demanding expressions of corporate loyalty online. Social media supercharges the quiet desperation of capitalist life; FOMO is encouraged, and enforced.

For me, FOMO was a culture and a way of life. As a teenage girl, I joined protests against poverty and racism in my small, Midwestern city. Part of the culture of protest was a communal obligation to bear witness; I came of age in the era of the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests and Indymedia, the agile, innovative activist-led news service that covered global protest from the ground. I submerged myself in the churning, constant horror of the world, increasing my exposure every time digital media expanded its reach and scope. As we got to grips with globalisation, my fellow activists and I believed in the links between all causes; without a coherent strategy to build a movement for change, we would rush from protest to meeting to fundraiser, never getting more than a superficial understanding of any one issue. The fear of missing out, the relentless pressure to embrace the entirety of the world’s struggles, fostered a group identity. A little city unto ourselves, we all consumed the same media, attended the same meetings, and discussed the same issues. This gave us a sense of purpose and utility, even as our organising failed to stop war and austerity. I took it all in, but I, and many others, paid the price in sleepless nights and blunted skills.

It has taken years of patient self reflection to realise that my obsessive reading of the news was eroding my well being; I had to learn that caring for myself properly, in mind and body, was at least as important as partaking in a mummer’s show of ritual protest. Only when I took a step back from activist culture, pop culture and the twenty four hour news cycle did I find that I had something new to say. I no longer fear missing out, I embrace it.

Today, in the house I share with my husband, we have no television and no radio. The sounds of our days are the chinks of hammers at the nearby building site, the cackle of two magpies chatting from their respective trees, and the buzz of badly tuned motorbikes passing by. As nature and humanity move all around us, my husband and I work on our respective books, sometimes not talking for hours.

My seclusion continues online. My internet is no longer an overwhelming torrent; it comes pre-filtered through my social media and a few online communities. These communities function like a scientist’s isolation box – I can put my hands into the thick gloves, and carefully examine the stories as they come in. When I read of the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, I also read the words of the people protesting on the ground. When I learn of the Islamic State beheadings, it is from anti-colonialists, not hawks for war, and because of my safety protocols, there is no chance I will stumble upon the awful, dehumanising footage.

I fell into this modern version of a contemplative life not because I am aiming to be some sort of admirable, cloistered ascetic, but because it is the healthiest option. My anxiety disorder affects my ability to focus, and caused me trouble in school, university and the world of work. Therapy, medication, and meditation did little to help, and over the years my anxiety ratcheted up slowly, until I lay awake most nights, with a racing heart and aching stomach. It became a kind of torture, and to stop the pain, I would give up anything, including a respectable job, and aspirations for a mainstream, admirable future. Finally, I had to give up the fear of missing out, of disconnection, and I found a kind of peace. I crave more and more of that peace, and I’ve learned to be strict with myself about making choices that enhance it. I can’t afford to give a damn about missing a scoop or not being invited to a party.

Turning off the news churn has given me the space to think, learn and write; as I emerge from the depths of anxiety and depression, I find that I am able to read and understand a complex book, and to absorb and integrate new ideas, possibly for the first time in my life. Now that I have the calmness and focus to learn, I have reengaged with politics, as a student of sorts. In the past year I’ve shed my identity as an old-school class warrior, slowly learning to apply the concepts of intersectionality to the world, and take a smaller, defined place in the ranks fighting for an effective social justice movement.

Even as I have let go of FOMO, I have found new ways to interact online, and have discovered that there is plenty of real depth and connection there, if one knows where to look. My university is still my screen; the course material, and the teaching, is a collective virtual conversation. My course is social justice; I watch and learn as activists in every struggle, from antiracism to the fight for the rights of sex workers, are creating safe spaces, and actively promoting the dismantling of privilege in their work; led by the oppressed, they are literally creating the structure of a practical solidarity. For all its distraction and its pressure, the Internet still has much to teach me. That I have access to this “university,” and the time and resources to study within it, is the result of my immense privilege. I am one of the lucky few, but I reject useless guilt. Only systemic change can dismantle privilege, and those who have it should use it with awareness, as a tool for change. Seen in this light, my peace is a tool I can use to increase my capabilities.

My peace, my embrace of missing out, is still imperfect. When I see a story that I wish I had written, I still get a little jealous and a little anxious. I wonder if I am an impostor, and think that if I were truly competent I would have had the story first. But the solution here, again, is to let go, and remember the benefits of my approach. Instead of spending a morning chasing after a scoop, I might have learned a new concept, provided support to a friend, thrashed out a theory with an expert halfway across the world, or nurtured my relationship with my husband. Instead of joining a chorus of comment, I contribute less frequently, but with a fresh perspective.

Most of the time, I remember that I no longer hate myself, and that neither social media nor the movement owns me. My choices are valid because they are mine, not because they conform to some imagined standard for activists. And even though I am privileged, and even though my work for change takes a quieter, more thoughtful form now, I deserve my happiness, and to take part in the world on my own terms. Because the happier I am, the more I will have to offer, as an activist, and as a person.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times