He didn’t get to nationalise the railways or dish out free broadband, but right at the year’s end Jeremy Corbyn made one undeniable contribution to politics, culture and human understanding. In the wee hours of 13 December, as the scale of Labour’s drubbing became clear, he said he would be stepping down after the start of a “process of reflection”. Online, this phrase was combined with another P-word Corbyn had used in the same speech, and yet another viral sensation was born: #PeriodOfReflection was rapidly everywhere, and its use became more and more ironic as the noise around the contest to be Labour leader increased. The apogee of absurdity probably arrived last Wednesday, in the mid-afternoon, when #CorbynwasRight was the number one hashtag on Twitter, and calm and introspection seemed very far away indeed.
Thumbs that endlessly jab at phones attest to the fact that for many of us, stepping back from the fray is unthinkable
Five days on, with hats flying into the ring and cliches already extending into the distance (the need to “reconnect”, the imperative to stay “radical”), the idea of a quiet interlude and the chance to think deep thoughts about the politics of the left does look like something of a joke. But the reasons run deeper than the loud speculation about whether it will be Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry, Lisa Nandy or Jess Phillips, and into one of the most vexing questions of our time: whether our current means of communication and discourse allow us any space to reflect on anything at all.
At which point, an unlikely segue, away from politics, into the creative arts. The 21st century’s closing-down of spaces for thought and reflection hit me like a hammer back in February, with the untimely death of the English musician Mark Hollis: among the noted passings-on of this year, his gave me the most pause for thought, something in keeping with his art. The chief creative force behind the band-cum-project Talk Talk, Hollis had moved from making fast-paced, glossy music that sounded like the very embodiment of the early to mid-80s, into stuff that was built on space and quiet. “Before you play two notes,” he once said, “learn how to play one note, and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.”
To my mind, his group’s masterpiece is the 1988 album Spirit of Eden, a recorded period of reflection that lasts just over 41 minutes. If I want to think, this is the record I put on. Its first piece, The Rainbow, begins with the faintest of chords, the merest hint of piano and a couple of other instruments that contribute the most sparse of sounds, punctuated by stretches of silence. There are no drums until nearly the third minute; Hollis’s voice – his first line is, “Oh yeah, the world’s turned upside down” – arrives at 3:29. The fact that Hollis had effectively retired from music in 1998 was held to be of a piece with such creations: he had gradually filled his music so full of space that there was eventually nowhere to go but complete silence, and the longest period of reflection any celebrated musician has probably ever registered.
Even at the time, Spirit of Eden, its follow-up Laughing Stock, and Hollis’s only solo album sat well apart from the rest of popular music. But now, they sound like creations from another universe. The most successful 21st-century music tends to be intentionally huge-sounding, and devoid of much light and shade: thanks to a ubiquitous production technique called dynamic range compression that has been the “in” thing for more than a decade, even the quiet bits are now loud. At the same time, the tyranny of streaming and the necessity of grabbing listeners’ attention as quickly as possible mean that composers and musicians are now in a permanent hurry, and desperate to hit us with the catchiest, crassest aspects of their songs. In 2017, researchers at Ohio State University discovered that the length of the average song intro had come down from 20 seconds in the 1980s to just five seconds. Among the other celebrated musicians who died this year was Marie Fredriksson, of the Swedish duo Roxette. By way of pointing to the future, that band’s 1995 greatest hits collection was titled Don’t Bore Us – Get to the Chorus!
Music only reflects the way we live. Thumbs that endlessly jab at smartphones attest to the fact that for millions – billions? – of us, stepping back from the endless fray is now unthinkable. Come off Twitter or Facebook for a few weeks, then tentatively go back on, and you may find yourself seemingly tweeting and posting into the void, as the algorithms at work put you in a kind of temporary exile, proving that online silence is a punishable offence. We all know the questions we silently ask our friends and acquaintances if they go quiet: why haven’t you replied to my direct message? Couldn’t you even have liked my post? Why on earth did you unfollow me?
In the offline world, conversation and exchange can be inherently reflective. Other people’s perspectives are empathetically soaked up; time is allowed for thought, and hesitation. The use of social media, by contrast, is too often performative: because most of it takes place in public view, it’s a ritualised and pretty stupid kind of interaction in which the biggest applause is reserved for the least reflective behaviour. A study by researchers at New York University found that each moral or emotional word used in a tweet – “furious”, “fuming”, “bastard”, “vile”, “gross” – increased its virality by an average of 20%. Metaphorically speaking, the loudest online conversations are all choruses, and no verses. Worse still, what is presented to us as the norm is the discursive equivalent of the worst kind of punk rock: misanthropic, nasty, endlessly excitable.
At the risk of sounding hopelessly old, I would argue that changes in other human habits have pushed us in much the same direction. It was undoubtedly good for our health, but the transformation of smoking into the preserve of pariahs has taken away one of the last things that allowed people in industrial societies to be temporarily alone with their thoughts. Whatever the downsides that have led increasing numbers of young people to leave booze alone, the moderate use of alcohol at least creates the opportunity for a slowing of our mental processes and exchange with others free of at least some inhibitions; the modern ubiquity of coffee, by contrast, highlights the fact that the most acceptable thing to be is uptight and hyperactive. More and more, a question hangs over the social, economic and cultural model we have created for ourselves: how are you meant to get a handle on a world of automation and online everything when their frantic rhythms so consume you, making any kind of critical distance impossible?
An answer may lie in that divine calm that, if you are fortunate, begins to take hold some time on Christmas Eve, and can be extended for the best part of a week. If that is going to happen, you have to switch off your phone, perhaps put on some appropriate music – Spirit of Eden, Brian Eno’s ambient triumph Music for Airports, or something more seasonal – and allow yourself to think. Otherwise what wins? Only unrestrained technocapitalism, whose cacophonous din gets louder every year.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist