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The Nokia 9000 Communicator combines digital voice, data services and personal organiser functions in a single compact unit. (Photo by Bert Power/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
The news isn’t getting better

The news isn’t getting better

The Nokia 9000 Communicator combines digital voice, data services and personal organiser functions in a single compact unit. (Photo by Bert Power/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

In the age of smartphones and social media, a quick scroll can give the impression that things are worse than ever before. But are they really?

The first mobile phone that could connect to the internet was the Nokia 9000 Communicator, released in Finland in 1996. Nobody bought it. The device cost a fortune, as did dialling up the world wide web. So it is the DoCoMo i-mode, out in Japan in 1999, that is regarded as the original internet-friendly mobile. Meaning smartphones have been about for three decades, even if they only truly took off around 2012. Everyone has one now.

As for laptops, it was 1999 when Apple went to market with its iBook G3, the first to have integrated Wi-Fi allowing the ordinary person to stay connected all day, every day. Yet doomscrolling – the practice of staring at a screen, with rising dread, updating, updating, absorbing the bad news, starting again, coming back for more, going to sleep, then waking up and doing it all again – that’s recent, that’s new. We did that to ourselves.

Well, some decisions that we, you, me, may have made or not, did that to us. Voting Trump, voting Brexit, storming the US Capitol, doing weird shit to pangolins, invading Ukraine, molesting women, dicking around with killer viruses in a lab, suffocating George Floyd, failing to plan for an energy supply crisis, stuffing the Supreme Court of the United States with religious extremists – this is humanity in action, none of which has improved our collective lot. This is our headline news.

Banda Aceh in Indonesia in January 2005 two weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami

And, look, terrible things happened between 1993 and 2012, too. There were wars, there was famine, the 9/11 attacks took place in 2001 and made the world a terrifying place. It is estimated that 230,000 people died in the Haitian earthquake in 2010 and roughly the same number in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. The Second Congo War, which lasted from 1998 to 2003, is calculated to have contributed to the deaths of 5.4 million people. And yet, no doomscrolling. No ever-present dread. That turns up around two years ago. 

Dictionary.com, which has 5.5 billion word searches on its site every year, noted it as its top monthly trend in August 2020; the Macquarie Dictionary, considered the authority on English in Australia, made doomscrolling its word of the year in 2020, too. It’s not just happening here. 

But it happens here a lot. Covid was a global phenomenon, a worldwide health crisis. The killing of George Floyd and previously the MeToo movement had ramifications in every continent. Brexit, however, the British own. We own its contribution to the cost of living crisis, we own its part in stagnating growth, we own the fresh uncertainty it has caused around the Northern Ireland border, we own what it has done to fishing and farming, we own the fact that it has made “Englishman” an insult in mainland Europe. Brexit is like Harry Kane: it’s one of our own.

Protests over the murder of George Floyd spread across the US and beyond in 2020

So there is a lot of doomscrolling around its consequences, whether in economic hardship or inconvenience at previous frictionless borders. “I’m not sure it is ever going to be clear in that sense whether it’s succeeded or failed,” said Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, but that’s just his sorry cover. If Brexit works, we’ll know. If anything works, you know. People didn’t invent penicillin or the internal combustion engine and then forget they did it. The only reason for Frost’s uncertainty is that he plans to use other events as a fig leaf to cover a bad idea. Anyway, if it was just Remain voters who were sitting looking at their phones for hours on end, sucking up the latest gloomy bulletins and wondering what it meant for them, it would be different. But it’s not. It’s all of us. The majority of the people of Tiverton were in support of leaving Europe, and in June returned an MP via a by-election from the party that was most convinced the tie to the European Union should remain. So there might be a tinge of pessimism in the air. The defeated Conservative candidate, meanwhile, showed her admirable ability for coping under pressure by locking herself in a dance studio and refusing to talk to the media. No doubt she had a little look at her phone while inside, to see what people were saying about her. Alan Partridge memes, mostly.

It can be argued that doomscrolling is nothing new; that it is merely the technology that has changed. George Gerbner, a Hungarian-born communications professor based in America who devoted his life to investigating the effect of television on viewers, came up with the phrase “mean world syndrome” in the 1970s. Gerbner believed that nightly news bulletins – which at the time would have included many reports from the Vietnam war – convinced those watching that the world was more dangerous and violent than it actually is. He has a point. “You ever watched CNN Headline News for any length of time?” asked the comedian Bill Hicks. “It’s the most depressing fucking thing you will ever do. War, famine, death, Aids, the homeless, recession, depression. War, famine, death, Aids… Then you look out your window… (makes noise of crickets chirping).” Hicks was dead by 1994. This isn’t a recent commentary. CNN Headline News doesn’t even exist any more. So doomscrolling has roots.

Women in the US lose their legal right to abortion

Gerbner testified before government committees claiming a direct correlation between the amount of television a person consumed and the amount of fear that person displayed about becoming a victim in normal life. He wasn’t just talking news. Violent entertainment shows, he said, lead to thoughts that death was around every corner. By 1976, Gerbner had created a Mean World Index.

What might that look like now, one wonders, with the world so much meaner? Gerbner was focused on violence but what does a decision like the overturning of Roe v Wade do for the mental health of women in America? To lose control of your body, to have it criminalised by Supreme Court justices appointed by a discredited president? The news is not getting better. Covid was the spark for doomscrolling but since 2020, as economies crash and recession looms, those sunlit uplands seem a mountain away.

Residents of Irpin in Ukraine flee their homes as war returns to Europe in 2022

Quick digression. I listen to a streamed radio station, NTS, almost every day. It’s genuinely revolutionary in its approach, changes the game, everyone says so. No commercial breaks, just music and the odd human voice, as played by artists and DJs across a whole spectrum of forms and tastes. In 2020, the Financial Times reported that NTS had 2.5 million unique monthly listeners and 50 per cent of its output couldn’t be found on Spotify because it was too new, too rare, too alien or had been unearthed from obscurity in some cratedigging odyssey on a trip to Japan. It’s bloody wonderful. And because I was late to it, I’ve had some catching up to do. The station’s entire archive is there to download: 24 hours of music, every day, since April 2011. So I’ve been working my way through shows dating back close on ten years. And not everyone talks. Some just play music. But, through the minimal asides of those who do engage, we’ve been through quite a lot: Trump, Brexit, Covid, Black Lives Matter and, most recently, the war in Ukraine. 

I can date when the late and very great Andrew Weatherall started ending his shows with the important message: “Don’t let the grubby little opportunists get you down.” I’ve listened as Covid dried up careers overnight, as upbeat hosts struggled compiling shows in home isolation, heard brilliant musical collages dealing with the George Floyd protests and, not long ago, listened as one of my favourite regulars wrestled with balancing his wife’s, and therefore his son’s, Ukrainian ancestry with his many friends who worked in the music industry in Russia, and their guilt at what their government was doing. Like any form of media, NTS is a historical record, too. Just with better tunes.

But, also, I’ve just found a new show and it is one that dates back to 2014. And what can be heard in the female presenter’s voice back then is nothing less than youthful optimism, untrammelled. The idea that America might elect a dangerous egomaniac like Trump is fanciful; so is the thought that Britain might reject an alliance with its nearest neighbours, as the collateral damage of a schism in the Conservative party; pandemics happen elsewhere and are controlled. In the shows I am listening to as I write, from 2014 and 2015, there is hedonism, there is fun, people go out and never think one day that this might end in state-imposed lockdown. I actually feel bad because I know what’s coming. It’s like being a visitor from the future but without the power to kill Hitler, form the Beatles, or all the other clichés associated with time travel.

Donald Trump supporters refuse to accept the result of the 2020 election

Think of yourself in 2014. If someone had said America would elect a man who spoke of grabbing women by the pussy and that, as a result of this, abortion would soon be made illegal across giant swathes of the nation – Texas alone is bigger than both France and Spain, individually – you would have thought them insane. And you would have been right. Consider the seismic events leading to there. It needed Trump to make the molestation statement yet still win the election. It needed him to be able to corrupt the Supreme Court before leaving office, so even a Democrat president was powerless confronted with a fundamentalist right-wing agenda. Imagine, too, contemplating the prospect of a coup following a democratic election in America. A march on the Capitol. Loss of life. And all encouraged by the same man, the loser of that election. It would seem preposterous, unbelievable. But it happened. Keep scrolling.

Marina Hyde, the Guardian’s brilliant columnist, has written a book called What Just Happened? The publicity announces it as a recap of our most modern history; a piercing scream of WTF, but with perfectly crafted jokes. Yet, seriously, what just happened? Bad actors have always made bad decisions and some have made life considerably more intolerable than a long, sweaty airport queue in Ibiza. It’s not like we’re at war. Then again, it wasn’t like anyone was repealing abortion rights  in America until it happened. And there is the odd wingnut – oh, sorry, it’s not a wingnut, it’s the overall commander of the British Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders – who is ready for war with Russia. “We are the generation that must prepare the Army to fight in Europe once again,” he said in June. So there’s that to look forward to.

Philip Larkin wrote Going, Going and Blur made an album called Modern Life Is Rubbish but I’ve never subscribed to that. We evolve, we change, and there are always wonderful experiences to be had, like finding romantic happiness, or new music on NTS. And we’ve just had a lovely few weeks in Andalusia. Idyllic, really. Then again, while I’ve been writing this, British Airways have cancelled our flight home. Let’s scroll.

Martin Samuel is chief sports columnist for the Daily Mail and Mail Online.

This piece appeared in the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.

Photographs Getty Images, Shutterstock