I’ve been having a hard time reading books and finishing movies. I click through websites, vacantly aware that things are going on in the world, accustomed to the placid, oceanic motion of clicking, scanning, and window-resizing. I browse Wikipedia entries, looking through section headers to get an idea of something I know nothing about. I’ve gotten so caught up in the romance of the news cycle, in the ability to have infinite access to infinite information that the cache of my mind dumps out, leaving me empty-headed and forgetful.
Infinite surface knowledge equals infinite anxiety—it circulates above us groundless and impossible to synthesize. We’ve been provided the tools to do great things, yet we rarely use them in the right ways. Given this wonderful virtual tool set that we were told would eventually save the world, what do we do? Look at cartoons and YouTube videos, create virtual pets, and set the “I Can Has Cheezburger?” meme loose on the world.
Where people once wrote and collected letters, in the near future, when we die, someone will have to print and collate our dissolute online footprints: social-networking profiles, emails, saved chats, message board posts, online journals, the detritus of mediocre, embarrassing lives.
Like going back to the land as a protest against industrial civilization, going against the tide of social networking is already an archaic form of dissent that means giving up your outlet for subversion. But even sadder than the lonely farmer Luddites are the true believers who feel like they’re on the cusp of something when they laud the most recent techno-innovation. Like Hillary Clinton giving a commencement speech at Barnard College and telling the graduating class: Get out there, girls! Organize and unite through Twitter and Facebook! Social network your way to the top!
To live without electronic gadgets now would necessitate breaking the addiction that has insidiously crept up. The thought that days might pass without getting a text message or a phone call from someone asking “What are you doing now?” or telling you what they’re doing seems unheard of.
There was a time when an interaction couldn’t be followed up by a text message—when the Puritans left Europe to come to America, good-bye was good-bye, possibly for forever. People didn’t piddle around making offensive verbal blunders and then sending corrective, clarifying emails. They knew it would be almost impossible to breach the silence of distance. They were more careful and more passionate. In our bright era of constant communication, good-bye means “I’ll see you on Gchat in a couple of hours.” The dreamtime past of writing a letter, of stopping by unannounced without texting first, of not being able to track each other down instantaneously but instead having to cope with painful, soul-confronting solitude—these activities are now the kitsch realm of grandmothers and punk rockers.
On that horrible kind of Sunday at dusk, cold-insides feeling, you might have found yourself where I was, anxiously Googling into the void for people you hadn’t seen in years, looking at their puckered model expressions online. They might have used their Internet personas to make themselves bigger and cooler than they are, like an animal throwing its shadow on a wall. Or maybe their profiles were small-scale and abashed, filled with lines like “I only use it to keep in touch with casual acquaintances” or “I need it for work.” You scroll through their public comment exchanges: “I wanna hang out with you!”; “Are you in Kansas City, yet? See you in Portland in a couple weeks?” But what if you couldn’t find them at all? What if they were utterly without an Internet presence, lurking in the shadows like Boo Radley, judgmental of those who wasted their time plugging in—it is this shameful feeling I get when I search to see if people have Facebook profiles and find they do not.
I feel queasy about the slipperiness of the Internet. If you pin it down and demand that it tell you its intentions, it just rolls over and squeals like Mickey Mouse, “I’m nothing but harmless fun!” Having jettisoned myself at times out the escape hatch of social-networking media, like a lab monkey who’s had it both ways, I can report that there were no longer widgets and tweets to pace my days, to give that extra endorphin boost you get when you return to the computer and think you might have a new comment or email waiting for you. We live in an unregulated communication heyday. The urge for mindless drift is irresistible. Eyesight has been permanently damaged from staring at screens. Libido is decreased. I’ve forgotten the passages I memorized from Shakespeare, my stanza memory having been diminished by epic YouTube-watching binges of talking cats and Japanese game shows.
If I’m writing something and stumbling over what to say, I am body-checked by the compulsive urge to minimize and check NYTimes.com or my email or some other panacea to keep my mind dully engaged without having to strain in the heat of concentration. I am warped back up to level one, doomed to skid along the icy two-dimensional surface of the web, where everything opinion is positioned to appear as truth. Some blogs are so heavily trafficked that they have become bigger and more respected than centuries-old newspapers. There is an inverse relationship between convenient modern technology and my own productivity—the thin rope of my concentration snapped by the beep of my in-box announcing a new message.
At a punk show promoted entirely on Facebook, the attendees milled around awkwardly, sad Internet trolls, socially maldeveloped from their big, distended web personalities. Show-goers and promoters alike came off as distinctly unsure of themselves, hesitating to approach those they’d known only as avatars on message boards or as pretty faces easily voyeured on social-networking sites. The promoters sat in a corner drawing up a real-life flyer for the event that was already half over—engaged in constructing an actual physical artifact to provide posthumous proof, in case hard drives or Facebook’s central server are accidentally wiped clean.
In 2012, if an event takes place and isn’t documented on the Internet—did it actually happen? Most events are only half-experienced by the parties present, their energy going into getting digital proof: camera-phone photos or silent observation to be shared as anecdote later on a blog. Flaubert wrote in a letter to a friend way back in 1846, “The pleasure one can have strolling through a virgin forest or hunting tigers is marred by the idea that one must later make an artful description to please as many bourgeois people as possible.”
Today, all life must be quickly transcribed into easily disseminated bulletins on how we’re doing. We are thoroughly addicted to communication—thoroughly tied to the beck and call of others, chained to our love of “being in touch.”
The problem of knowing things only from their shadows: You can interpret a network of symbols without having any real knowledge of the subject. Deep analysis is pushed away by the flurry of new and breaking transmissions. The idea of thinking about just one thing over the course of several days or a week is unheard of. We change gears every 24 hours, reacting to whatever buttons they are pushing in the central control rooms.
There’s a sense of impending doom when the wireless router goes down. My housemates pace the house anxiously, complaining that they can’t check their email, plugging and unplugging the router and the network adapter, disconnecting the whole thing and throwing it on the floor before setting it up again. They eventually give up, despondent and marooned without access, now such a vital component of our work and communication with the outside world. We have to work, we have to keep abreast, and, most importantly, we always have to stay in touch.
We indulge in endless hours constructing our Internet selves, frittering away time constructing tiny replicas of our personalities in the virtual world and making computer scans of Google views down every street. Looking for some form of resistance, I turn to our modern oracle, Google, searching for “criticism of Wikipedia.” The top result listed is Wikipedia’s own page on criticism of itself.
I would hazard to say that rabid Internet use is killing many potentially brilliant creators who have given in to the seduction of the instantaneous. Puttering about in a purgatorial state of multitasking is not conducive to making things. One solution: Sabotage the Internet from the inside out—like flying the X-Wing into the center of the Death Star in order to destroy it completely.
There are no data analysts to tell you how you’re doing at life. No pie graph, no productivity charts, no online survey or technics can give you a true reading. At the end of your life, there won’t be a summation flowchart that marks the high and low points. Procrastination assumes many forms: Glutting your brain with information and trying to meet the right people dwell under the banners of “getting smarter” and “networking.” I am sidetracked by the most menial things, like blogs where people post daily pictures of how their injuries are healing—while people simultaneously instant-message me and I fruitlessly try to locate an obscure quote in the landfills of advertising-heavy mirror sites. It would seem that that the only exit is a broken Ethernet port and a small white room with a lock.
Everything is still possible. We can be the yeast of new worlds and create new situations. We’re all caught in the riptide of time together, getting one year older at the same pace. The seconds turn into years, vanquished with long hours on the job. And the worst part: Stakes are high. Time passes with no judgment on our decisions. It won’t tell you whether you did the right thing or blew it. It does not judge whether you gave up or stayed true to your vision and dreams—only you can tell that. The years chunk on, and beginning to germinate inside is the feeling you get in the moments at the zenith of a roller-coaster: We’ve crested the top and are about to begin the plunge downward.
Aaron Lake Smith is the editor and publisher of the fanzine Big Hands. Excerpted from the third issue of Biopsy (Autumn 2010), an intermittently published cultural protest magazine. www.biopsymag.com
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.