Antisocial: how putting away my phone helped me recover from a heart attack

In the first weeks of my convalescence I developed a capacity for time travel. I had to spend a lot of time in bed and, floating on the edge of wakefulness, half-conscious, I discovered I could explore scenes from my past in exquisite detail. I wondered if it was a side effect of my various medications and whether it would be permanent. It was almost hallucinogenic and not unpleasant. I couldn’t replay whole scenes from my youth, but I was able to transport myself back to old places – only interiors. I could feel the contours of the Artex on the walls of my childhood home in the late 70s. I could smell the damp on the charcoal-coloured carpet in the living room of the flat I rented with friends when I left university.

I could explore these spaces with fingertip precision, inch by inch. I remembered the angles of door handles and the action on light switches.

I told my wife that the heart attack had left me with a superpower, albeit not a very practical one. She wasn’t impressed. Then the gift faded away. I understood it better after it was gone. My hyper-vivid memory had taken me to places I had once lived and been happy. It was an expression of relief; security. I was reaching out to the past to confirm that it joined up with the present and contained a bridge to a future. My body was caressing memories of places I had once called home. I had made it back.

I wasn’t strong enough yet to venture far from my front door and work was forbidden, which meant I also didn’t look at the news. I disengaged from the internet and, to my surprise, I didn’t miss it.

I had taken time away from my phone before, on holidays, and found it difficult in much the same way that I had once found it hard to quit smoking. There is the same restlessness, the same twitchiness in the hands bereft of something to hold, the same feeling of being stalked by an absence.

Nicotine activates receptors in the brain that release dopamine – a potent feelgood chemical that gets involved whenever you do something pleasurable. It is there when you eat delicious food, wake from a good night’s sleep, score a goal, have sex. The insidious genius of the cigarette is the way it mimics the gratification of getting things done. It whispers success in your mind’s ear. The first few drags send out a tingle of reward for having accomplished something. By lighting a cigarette, you have indeed solved a problem – the problem of not having a lit cigarette in your mouth.

Social media plays on the same cycle of false reward and renewed craving. Journalists are especially susceptible to Twitter because it satisfies two appetites – compulsion to know what is happening and the need for an audience. Even hostile reaction feeds the addiction, either because you feel obliged to defend yourself or because you don’t want to log out on a negative note. You have a bitter taste in your mouth after reading abuse, and kid yourself that more tweeting will rinse it away.

It is also a game, and contains a particular kind of compulsion. It is a race to acquire friends and followers, likes and retweets. That quest for recognition, regardless of what is being said or shared, is the commercial engine of social media. The commodity is attention, and it doesn’t matter whether it was a cat picture or an anti-vaccine video that induced the click.

The concept of an “attention economy” was coined before the internet wrote it into the business model of a multi-trillion-dollar industry. It was first theorised in the 1970s by computer scientist and psychologist (and Nobel laureate) Herbert A Simon. As he put it:

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

The more crowded the information marketplace, the harder it is for bland facts to compete with more lurid fare. Palates that are jaded need higher doses of spice. In politics, that creates incentives to wilful provocation. One way to catch the attention of a large audience is to stir a smaller one into a lather of indignation. In politics, infuriating the other side can be an effective campaign technique to amplify a core message.

An infamous case was the claim painted on the side of a Vote Leave battle bus: “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” Remainers were incensed by the number, which had no meaningful basis in fact. But attacks on that figure still served the underlying Brexit goal, which was to implant in voters’ minds an idea: EU membership cost a load of money.

Extreme opinions are doubly lucrative, shared once by those who passionately agree and then again by the other side as exemplars of wrongness. The arena where news and ideas are debated is whipped into emotional frenzy, which is not a mental state conducive to judicious moderation.

Some of the most sophisticated technologies developed by our species have been made subordinate to the primitive side of our nature. Then we wired that machinery up to the heart of democracy. Repetitive troglodyte clicking is a feature, not a bug, in the system of politics online.

One-click consumer culture is the enemy of deferred gratification. Whatever the problem, the solution is here and now. This is analogous to the impatience that demagogues exploit when campaigning against the frustrations of representative democracy. Every second of the political day on social media is a referendum on whatever feels most urgent in the moment. The high frequency of that cycle makes it harder to distinguish between what is noisy and what is important. It militates against the debate of priorities, which is part of the negotiation of trade-offs necessary for pluralist politics to function. The algorithms that make us eager online shoppers for trash we don’t need also stoke our appetite for junk politics.

The effect is infantilising, in the sense that it infuses politics with a toddlerish temperament – wanting things right now; having tantrums when they are denied. (Chris Wetherell, the software developer who created the retweet function for Twitter, worried about exactly this bypass of adult cognition when he reflected that “we might have just handed a four-year-old a loaded weapon”.)

Tech companies didn’t set out with the goal of corrupting democracy. The embitterment of debate and shrinkage of neutral spaces where compromise might be available just happen to be the commercial imperative – the online bazaar is also a public square. The trading platform is also a service that disables critical judgment in politics.

The damage goes deep. It is a structural assault on the bedrock of collective belonging to a single political community. It unpicks the conceptual basis of what we call, as a singular noun, “the public”, as distinct from a multitude of querulous individuals or tribes. It is hard to have a debate about the best course of action when the information space has been segregated into comfort zones, each with its own protective barricade against distressing counter-argument.

In such a disaggregated, post-public realm, it is hard to agree on what matters, and hard even to settle on a standard account of what constitutes reality – whether the crowd at a presidential inauguration was big or small; whether or not Covid is real.

Scientifically demonstrable facts have not been eliminated from public life, as the common “post-truth” lament would imply. Covid was killing people whether they believed in it or not. Pandemic policy in Britain might not have been a prompt or exact enactment of what government scientists recommended, but nor did it go chasing after bizarre superstitions.

The more subtle and pernicious aspect of post-truth media is the amount of energy consumed in the competition to define basic facts that shouldn’t even need contesting. That accelerates corrosion of trust in civil institutions. A vicious cycle begins. The overwhelming complexity of modern life is made more alarming by the digital frenzy, which in turn stimulates an appetite for comforting fictions about the world. We use selective information tools to insulate ourselves from spiky truths. In those conditions, voters are attracted to candidates who reflect their fear and anger back at them, validating their sense of grievance and offering the solace of simple solutions.

Those candidates are hopelessly ill-equipped to handle the actual challenges of government. Once elected, they fail to deliver the gratification that was promised. Then begins the hunt for scapegoats. Frustration and anger with the political system becomes both cause and effect of political fury. Staggering through that red mist, we lose sight of what we have in common.

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Once I stopped doom-scrolling, I became conscious of a change in mental tempo that comes when you no longer interrupt your own thought processes with a luminous screen. The search for news had rarely been the real reason for taking my phone out of my pocket. Nine times out of ten, there would be no particular thing I was looking for, no destination, just a vague itch to scratch.

I suspect that the trigger had been unconscious reluctance to let my mind wander by itself, unguided by the algorithm of sequential distractions. How had I become so mentally unadventurous? When had I decided that my train of thought needed derailing before it left the station? Letting it roll down the track reminded me of being a child, having a space to explore that was virtual but not digital. The word for that realm is imagination.

I don’t claim to have reached a Zen state of post-fury. My family would laugh at the idea, especially when I have a deadline. Some contact with social media was unavoidable once I went back to work (although the rule is rarely on weekends, never on holidays). With sufficient digital hygiene – maximum privacy settings; blocking and muting the lunatics – it can be a bountiful source of data and ideas. For every maniacal troll I have had to ignore, there are plenty of witty and thoughtful voices. There are people I have never met offline but whose sanity and good humour on the internet has helped keep me balanced and who, with reasonable challenges, have given me cause to adjust my views.

I still get angry, but I am better at seeing what portion of the anger is organically mine and how much is synthetic – a poisonous substance sprayed out by the machinery I operate for work.

Anger is not inherently toxic to democracy. It can be the antidote to apathy, but it has to be the spur to something else. It has to lead somewhere that isn’t just more anger. “Anger is to make you effective,” Philip Roth once wrote. “That’s its survival function. That’s why it’s given to you. If it makes you ineffective, drop it like a hot potato.”

Rage is rooted in fear, as a defensive reaction against perceived threat. I am a little better now at seeing the hostility in other people – and myself – as an expression of anxiety and insecurity. Whether on social media or in real life, incivility and aggression spring from dread of losing control. In politics, they arise when someone feels under attack, which is increasingly common when the boundaries between opinion, policy and identity are blurred. People do not respond kindly to views that they experience as injury to their sacred beliefs. That response might not be rational, but the feeling is real, and telling someone to get over it doesn’t help. The trick is not to take it personally, even when it is personal.

The Hungarian mathematician George Pólya had good advice for anyone overwhelmed by a complex challenge: “If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.” It doesn’t apply exactly in politics, because mathematical problems tend to have precise solutions. The equation can be simplified. A graph can be plotted and the answer found at the place where the lines cross. Maths abhors grey areas. But there is still a political application for Pólya’s principle of locating the doable part of a problem. In apparently intractable, polarised arguments, there is nearly always a place of common understanding somewhere – some sliver of terrain where the terms of reality are mutually recognisable. Find that; build on it.

After nearly two years as a cardiac outpatient, I had to submit to something called a nuclear stress test. It sounds like the sort of thing that should be done in a concrete bunker underneath an American desert. In reality, it meant going to a hospital, swallowing a radioactive isotope that illuminates the arterial routes carrying blood to the heart, taking a drug that excites the cardiovascular system and lying under an MRI machine that can locate any blockages.

I was offered a blanket. The room needed to be kept at a fridge temperature to protect the scanning machines which are vulnerable to overheating. I remembered then how much I had shivered during the emergency intervention while I was having my heart attack. The medical team had held me still so the surgeon could insert a catheter. In my morphine-addled haze it had felt as if they were wrestling to keep me out of death’s hands, holding me still as my body tried to shuffle off the mortal coil. It turns out to be more prosaic than that: a cold room.

I was a lot more relaxed two years later, blanket tucked up to my chin, lying still while the scanner whirred overhead. When it was done, I was free to go about my business with the proviso that I would still be mildly radioactive for a few hours.

The bumf I had been sent counselled against hugging children or getting close to pregnant women immediately after the procedure. So this is what it means to be toxic, I thought. And not as a metaphor, but literally – walking down the street emitting dangerous particles.

The test found no hidden blockages, showing only the damage I knew had already been done to my heart by years of unhealthy living and denial. The radiation wore off soon enough, having served its diagnostic purpose. The poison had worked its way out of my system by the time I got home.

This is an edited extract from Rafael Behr’s Politics: A Survivor’s Guide – How to Stay Engaged Without Getting Enraged (Atlantic). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply. Behr will discuss the book at a Guardian Live event in London on Monday 12 June. Readers can join the event in person or online. Book tickets here


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