Battleship, Earl, Slate, Ash, Dolphin, Overcast, Elephant, Silvery, Smoker’s Lung, it’s easy to forget there used to be innumerable shades of grey. When the Apple Macintosh was launched in 1984 its screen boasted 256 shades of grey. By the time E. L. James’s soft-porn bonkbuster was published, there were only 50 (even if she found a few more for the sequels). Now shades of grey, along with stretched metaphors for subtlety, are so last century.
One of the main causes for the death of our cognitive greyscale was a little invention, also in 1984, of psychiatrist Karen Kempner and dentist Ed Zuckerberg: Little Marky, the Dr Frankenstein of Facebook.
In the early 90s, when Ed bought an Atari 800 to teach his son some BASIC programming, he thought he was ahead of the curve, little realising that the very idea of a curve, with all the continuous subtle gradations of angles it implies, would be an anathema to his kid who found more empathy with the machine. Things are much simpler in computer languages, ultimately, everything is either on or off. Things either are or they are not. It is the Danish distillation: “to be or not to be” – why bother with anything else?
And the political climate that Mark, and our other techno i-dols, grew up in was dominated by Dubya Bush’s rhetoric and the neo-con world view. There was good and there was evil, right and wrong, black and white.
So when the blessed geeks inherited the Earth, maybe it was inevitable that their genius for binary, designing a new world out of ones and zeroes, would end up seeping through everything they made becoming the dominant factor in the way we receive information, process ideas and even think.
My kids claim their constant screens make them more connected than any previous generation, they’re more in-tune with their peers, and the world, than I ever was; limited to a land-line and a tiny circle of geographically local kids. And yet, for all that, all they seem capable of communicating is endless self-contained, unarguable, micro statements and gurning snapchat, emoji aping, poses. The idea that they are both connected and simultaneously disconnected, that the medium both enables and limits and changes and shifts the very multilogue they believe they are having in a million different subtle ways, seems impossible. Either they are connected or they’re not. On/Off.
There is no “conversation” on social media. The intricacies of different rhetorical devices utilised to argue or persuade or flirt or cajole or urge or elicit are lost and the only audible voices are the ones in caps, with the simplest messages. LEAVE, REMAIN, TRUMP IN, TRUMP OUT, LIVE, DIE, WHATEVER.
So do not wonder why our elected representatives seem to have no way of understanding, or feel empowered to work through, a negotiated settlement. For them you either have a deal or no deal. You’re in power or you’re out of power, you’re anti-Semitic or you’re not anti-Semitic. The black and white referendum question allowed no room for subtlety or “third ways” which is presumably why it was originally billed as an advisory straw poll; a fact ignored because it is incomprehensible in the on/off digital binararium we now live in. Even if the switch is 52% off and 48% on, then we’re off. Obvs.
Is it any wonder that we feel we’re living in an age of extremes when extremes are all that are talked about?
And there’s money in extremism. Last month, Channel 4’s Dispatches sent an undercover reporter to work for Facebook and find out how Zuckerberg’s minions decide what is good for the platform to share.
Working as a Content Moderator, the reporter discovered videos of child abuse allowed to stay and being shared thousands of times. Good for Facebook were: eating live animals, beatings from school bullies, disturbing images of self-harm and eating disorders. Racist content and hate speech was flagged to stay; far-right pages supporting Britain First and Tommy Robinson got special protection thanks to their large and rabid followings. Censorship was simply “bad for business”, the reporter’s boss pointed out. What kept people on the site was shocking content and extreme politics, more clicks mean more exposure to advertising and more money for Facebook.
Extremism is in the DNA of social media. When you see something moderately likeable you might read it and forget it, but something repulsive or incredible you’ve got to react, like, share and drive advertising as you do.
Every day we find ourselves needled and prodded to react by our social networks courting controversy. Our knees involuntarily jerk as we decry or promote, like, share, frown and retweet the messages that appear to agree or disagree with the bare surface of our own polarising opinions. We are being lead into extremism by a digital version of a happy slapper, someone who spills their own drink in order to get into fight with you, someone who will inanely insist on the opposite to any orthodoxy as long as it offends and baits clicks. Forget research, forget reasoned argument, forget ethics. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Buzzfeed etc. is mass personal sensationalism, it’s Piers Morgan, it’s blood sports – it’s the Colosseum in ancient Rome – it’s bread and circuses – who would be surprised if it was the decline and fall?
Before global warming, Britain offered a vast array of drab greys, from the soot covered buildings to the smogs and endless overcast rainy skies. We understood our greys. When looking out of a window, rather than at a screen, was still a thing, we understood how to look for the tiniest chink of light in the unvarying gloom. Our dreary environment taught us to interpret all our greys, and gave us the skills to spot the tiniest disparities of brightness that might be trying to shine through; and maybe even appreciate the barely perceptible subtleties of life’s often infinitesimal variations to find some colour within. Socialising, conversation, with all the body language and facial expressions that accompanied it, was multi-layered, complex, alchemical, and nuanced. It took effort and maturity to decipher; everything our spectrumed geeklords found disturbing growing up. Why try to work out the human when you have a machine? And slowly their software and interfaces have eroded all our subtleties, now “we’re all on the spectrum.” It turns out that, far easier than programming machines to interpret humans was making machines to programme humans. Perhaps it’s time to Make Britain Grey Again.
A version of this article first appeared in