Wireless Void

My favorite piece of writing from the last year was “Sad as Hell.” Officially it’s a book review for Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Unofficially it’s a portrait of the reviewer’s addiction to media and the struggle to prevent it from derailing her life.

This anxiety is about more than failing to keep up with a serialized source, though. It’s also about the primitive pleasure of constant and arbitrary stimulation…

And it’s losing track of this distinction—between reading and seeing—that’s so shameful. It’s like being demoted from the category of thinking, caring human to a sort of rat that doesn’t know why he needs to tap that button, just that he does.

There are no illusions about technology making our lives better. Just stretching us thinner, making us more numb, more dependent, less able to experience life authentically:

Shteyngart says the first thing that happened when he bought an iPhone “was that New York fell away . . . It disappeared. Poof.” That’s the first thing I noticed too: the city disappeared, along with any will to experience. New York, so densely populated and supposedly sleepless, must be the most efficient place to hone observational powers. But those powers are now dulled in me. I find myself preferring the blogs of remote strangers to my own observations of present ones.

As book reviews go, it’s pretty bleak. I’ve probably read it 10 times this year and I can’t remember a piece like it hitting me on that specific emotional level.

There have been similar pieces like Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, Sharon Begley’s “Does the Web Change How We Think?” and more recently Bill Keller’s “The Twitter Trap” (and its critiques).

But I keep coming back to “Sad as Hell.” Consider that the author, Alice Gregory, is only 23 years old.

For years we’ve been led to believe, and almost encouraged to fear, the idea that younger generations who became technologically savvy in adolescence would never understand the significance because it’s all they’ve ever known; they would integrate it into their daily lives, develop a deeper understanding of it than you, identify with it more, master it, maybe even use it as a tool to eventually usurp you (you, a fading middle-aged person who is unable to keep up).

But here’s a bright person who came of age in an ideal period when the web was maturing and becoming social…and just out of college, she’s already feeling burned by the same things she sees in Shteyngart’s science fiction:

Like all great science fiction writers, Shteyngart deals in absurdist teleology, taking what is farcical about the present day to its logical extreme. Everyone in this world is ranked within categories: “personality,” “fuckability, “anal/oral/vaginal preference,” “male hotness.” Often, Lenny scores within the lowest of these percentiles.

The premise is super funny but also super true. What else are we doing on the internet if not asserting our rank?

These days when I open an email from Twitter telling me I have a new follower, my eyes hover on those stats (“Number Following | Number of Followers | Listed”) and my subconscious decides it’s okay to rank a stranger according to “influence” or the extent to which they might be able to entertain me or help my career. Then there’s a feeling of guilt like my friend Kai described after experiencing a surge of new followers.

This is part of life now, unrecognizable from how it looked at 23.

1998, the year I turned 23, was the year I learned to design and build websites to support myself. I didn’t know much about computers, but I would spend all night wandering the web, following hyperlinks from page to page like a Choose Your Own Adventure book with no beginning or end. I explored every web-ring and online community. I would email total strangers if they seemed interesting. Sometimes it was just for the thrill of striking up a conversation with someone who was unlike me, as it had been writing to pen-pals as a child.

I remember each time I launched Netscape Communicator, it was like diving in a submarine, down into a weird world of exotic outposts. The visuals could be loud or clumsy, but the experience was “quiet.” The 1998 web never provoked panic or made me feel like I needed to have 20 apps and browser windows running. No one expected my constant presence or feedback or “Likes” of their content. It was not a substitute for my brain; it was a place for my brain to get lost for awhile.

(Was the web ever that quaint? Is anything as quaint as you remember it?)

Almost 15 years later, I go through phases of spending embarrassing amounts of time online. It’s like someone flipped the hourglass and all the contents of the real world trickled down into the virtual world, which is where all the exciting stuff happens now. But people my age have had 15 years to gradually accept how the web was changing the ways we experience life. We can claim we “lived more” in those days, in ways this generation cannot:

You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.

There is no mention of limiting the iPhone usage, taking breaks from Twitter, or modulating the anxiety by simply unplugging for awhile. Unplugging isn’t a serious option, not even close. She’s a reluctant internet Lifer like the rest of us. The choice is whether to surrender and accept the permanent changes to your brain and nervous system, or to be the lone defector among your family and friends who unplugs from all their status updates and feels like the most isolated person on earth and the only one who understands what a mixed blessing that is—how many 23-year olds today are capable of that?

They become alienated from the sound of their own true voice, their identity, their sense of self.

It’s possible Alice Gregory is one voice in a tiny minority of younger people who are especially sensitive to the anxiety, and part of an even tinier minority able to express that it’s happening at all. She dreads her iPhone (“that little monster in my pocket pushing me an uninterrupted stream of distractions”) while everyone else her age treats it like their body’s most precious appendage. Maybe the majority of them really are swimming along, happily juggling their multiple devices and avatars and feeds and email accounts without feeling the weight of it.

On Twitter I follow around 500 people from a range of backgrounds. I imagine them sitting at glossy Apple displays, drinking coffee, complimenting each other, ogling typography, holding down a dozen simultaneous conversations, waking up the next day, doing it all over again. You couldn’t find a more tame, good-natured environment, like watching friends sit at a bar having a drink together. But for some there’s an element of performance taking place that leads to what Sherry Turkle (Alone Together) calls “presentation anxiety” as people become addicted to asserting themselves online. They become alienated from the sound of their own true voice, their identity, their sense of self.

Last year British psychologists studying the link between internet addiction and depression concluded:

Young people were significantly more likely to show addictive symptoms than were older people. There was a significant difference between the IA and the NA group in their levels of depressive symptoms, with the NA group firmly in the non-depressed range, and the IA group in the moderately-to-severely depressed range.

20 years from now, the demands on our attention will be even more intense. Either we’ll collectively adapt or there will be much larger movements among people to unplug as a legitimate means of therapy. Alice’s generation might be the last to experience the growing pains of constant connectedness. Each time I read it, “Sad as Hell” reminds me that there are some who are not happily surfing the web or even swimming in it. It’s more like they’re drowning in it.