Body-Checked by a Beep

We are chained to our love of “being in touch”

| January-February 2012

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.

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