The Stack Archive

Stephen Fry signs off from ‘The Grid’ again

Wed 20 Apr 2016

Following a scathing departure from his four million Twitter followers regarding criticism of his BAFTA commentary in February, unelected UK and internet technology ambassador Stephen Fry has made an avowed departure from all social networks.

In a stinging 2,600+ word essay at stephenfry.com, the 58-year-old comedian, presenter and raconteur compares an exit from mainstream social network channels such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to the heroic plight of the heroes of 1970s dystopian sci-fi movies such as Logan’s Run and Soylent Green; thereby comparing the pre-eminence of social media with those highly-telescoped visions of ruthless government authorities.

Likewise Fry regards flight from the social networks in the same light as ‘unplugging’ from the enemy artificial reality offered to a ‘sleeping’ populace in The Matrix:

‘Jacking out of the matrix would cast one as a hero of the kind of dystopian film that proved popular in the 70s, Logan’s Run, Zardoz, Soylent Green, Fahrenheit 451 … on the run from The Corporation, with the foot soldiers of The System hard on your heels. We really are starting to live in that kind of movie, mutatis mutandis, so surely it’s time to join the Rebels, the Outliers, the Others who live beyond the Wall and read forbidden books, sing forbidden songs and think forbidden thoughts in defiance of The One.’

The tech evangelist, first baptised into his ministry by early association with Apple’s products, turns his powers of persuasion 180 degrees in the piece, in a plea for ‘Generation Z’ to rebel against the matrix:

‘Who most wants you to stay on the grid? The advertisers. Your boss. Human Resources. The advertisers. Your parents (irony of ironies – once they distrusted it, now they need to tag you electronically, share your Facebook photos and message you to death). The advertisers. The government. Your local authority. Your school. Advertisers..
Well, if you’re young and have an ounce of pride, doesn’t that list say it all? So fuck you, I’m Going Off The Grid.

The essay grounds its argument in the current millennial fad for ‘retro’ and ‘legacy’ – abstract, unlived ideas for young people captivated by the spirit of nostalgia for the fax age – but Fry, part of the ‘blank generation’ that emerged after the conformity of the 1950s and before the conformity of the yuppie age, ascribes genuine merit to the pre-digital society, and fond regard for the early days of the internet and the computer revolution:

‘The digital Wild West may have been rough and lawless but folk were politer to strangers and knew their manners better than the ruthless, ambitious citizens who took over. The pioneer territory has now had its shitty streets and crooked boardwalks paved over. In place of saloons there are strip malls, fun fairs and multiplexes. The telegraph and train killed the stage coach and the pony express.’

The highly discursive piece provides a fairly comprehensive history of the internet, and an array of historical examples demonstrating Fry’s contention that the current social media giants will fall as mightily as they have risen in the last ten years:

‘And Facebook will be dust one day. Hard to imagine perhaps but obviously and happily true… For now, Facebook is of course all powerful and finds itself busy eating the internet (thereby preparing its own extinction) and of course parents are on it. That’s how crap it is.’

‘Off the Grid’ is a refreshing note of rebellion because of who wrote it, though that’s somewhat counterbalanced by Stephen Fry’s epic history of departure, and not just from the virtual world. His last major retirement from Twitter was in 2009, following a row with another Twitter user. Fry suffers, now quite publicly, from bipolar disorder.

So he may be back – it wouldn’t be the first time. But his current spirit of rebellion is worthy of celebration:

‘I live in a world without Facebook, and now without Twitter. I manage to survive too without Kiki, Snapchat, Viber, Telegram, Signal and the rest of them. I haven’t yet learned to cope without iMessage and SMS. I haven’t yet turned my back on email and the Cloud. I haven’t yet jacked out of the matrix and gone off the grid. Maybe I will pluck up the courage.’

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