This week, we return to the theme of how digital technology reshapes our common life.
We begin with Andrew Sullivan’s recent New York magazine piece, “I Used to Be a Human Being.” Sullivan’s musings deserve attention for many reasons, not least of them being that until relatively recently his “Daily Dish” was one of the great success stories of digital journalism. As he tells it, however, “living in the web” required significant bodily discipline. “Each morning,” he tells us, “began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes.”
Sullivan is not blind to the many benefits of life as a digital journalist, and he speaks candidly about the advantages of instant interaction with his readers. However, Sullivan writes, while reinventing himself as a writer for the digital age was one thing, “the problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.” He explains:
If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”
Answering this question led Sullivan to shut down his blog, rethink his relationship with his iPhone, and sign up for an extended stay at a meditation retreat center. “I Used to Be a Human Being” is, in this way, a story about recovery—the attempt to recover some essential features of being human that Sullivan had lost simply by immersing himself in the reigning digital patterns in our time and place.
Sullivan’s essay adds to a substantial and growing body of work asking basic and critical questions about the place of technology in modern life. In fact, the list of writers Sullivan cites (Sherry Turkle, Matthew Crawford, and Alan Jacobs, to name a few) should be familiar to longtime Culture Briefing readers. For her part, Julia Ticona registers a significant qualification to much of this literature. In a brief piece for Pacific Standard, Ticona describes a kind of “digital hustle” that many working-class citizens are forced into by the precarious nature of their work. In this world, a compulsive, near addiction-level relationship with digital technology is not based in the need to remain within the collective hive-mind of our preferred corner of the web; rather, it is what is required to “cobble together a livelihood.” As Ticona puts it, ‘for many, making ends meet means constantly checking and participating in online networks and message boards to find work, as well as phone calls and text messages to coordinate their gigs.” Ticona’s piece reminds us that any account of the dangers of constant digital connectivity that doesn’t acknowledge the ways in which, for many, “flexible capitalism” necessitates such connectivity is missing an important point.
While they are few and far between, some counter-narratives exist. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Christine Rosen points to a relatively small but significant percentage of teenagers opting out of social media. “When 14-year-old Brian O’Neill of Washington, D.C., wanted to find out what his friends had been up to over summer vacation,” her piece begins, “he did something radical: He asked them.” While the research Rosen cites makes plain that this is a clear minority (somewhere between 5-15% of teenagers), the energy behind this movement (if it can be called such) is not borne of negation. Rather, like Andrew Sullivan, young people opting out of a wired existence do so in order to pursue something they deeply crave—non-mediated, immediate encounters with friends. As 19 year-old Annie Furman puts it, “I’d rather see my friends in person than tweet at them.”
Our culture of constant connectivity has made certain time-honored practices increasingly difficult
The trend toward living on screens is likely to continue. And the benefits of doing so are difficult to deny. For my part, I’m glad I was alerted to the publication of Sullivan’s essay within 30 minutes of its posting so I could include it here for your consideration. But it is also clear that when it comes to our digital lives, the default position has become one of near saturation. For most of us, living on screens is not something we opt into; it is, rather, something we must opt out of.
Part of what this week’s pieces show is that our culture of constant connectivity has made certain time-honored practices—like quiet reflection, focused attention, and sustained conversation—increasingly difficult. It seems that what is needed is not only to identify these endangered practices, but also to creatively adapt to preserve them. In Vol. 20 and Vol. 42, we highlighted several such creative adaptations from tech-world veterans; and way back in Vol. 5, we pointed to a Wired piece about the ways the Apple Watch, counterintuitively, was intended to limit our on-screen lives. Innovations like these indicate a desire to acknowledge both the benefits and the costs of the digital revolution, and point to ways forward that honor the wisdom of the past alongside the advances of the present.