Try to pinpoint the last time you took a purposeless walk through the late spring breeze, when there was no itch in your hand to reach for a mobile device, and you felt like the wind and sky around you had nothing to disclose to you other than the vast and mysteriously sympathy of existence itself. Was it 2007? Or as far back as 1997? Does just asking the question make you feel ill?
Do you lie awake in bed more often these days, unable to sleep, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter on your phone, trying to ignore signs of stress? Perhaps a faint taste of acid in your mouth? Do you have a gnawing fear that dark alliances are forming among your countrymen and conspiring against you, and everyone you like and (for good measure) everyone like you? Does it make you want to spend more money, or write yourself more reminders to do "self-care?" Maybe you suspect that if anyone else cares about your self it is only to notice that deep down you're just as much of a hateful loser as they are?
Well, me too. Sometimes. Like the mental-health professional worth paying, I can tell you that what you're feeling isn't your fault. But unlike them, I think what you're feeling might be my fault.
You see, I'm paid to write about politics and culture on the internet.
In a very perceptive essay, Will Rahn argued that everybody in America thinks they are losing. Liberals look out on the world and see the Democrats defeated and driven to the edge of politics. Conservatives look out on the world and see a Republican Party that can win elections but can't change the culture. "No matter where we stand ideologically, everyone in the mainstream gets the sense that we've somehow already lost, that some past battle has already decided the long war's outcome in our opponents' favor," Rahn writes.
There are any number of reasons why people feel this way, historical and political. But one of the main reasons they feel like this is because of the internet, particularly social media's effect on the way news is created and delivered to you. And how all of this has warped the experience of those who have lived through these social changes. It isn't just about politics either, but almost every dimension of human experience. Do you love architecture? Someone just built a monstrosity next to a building you loved. Click here. Do you adore products by Apple? Well, they're screwing them up. Click here. Did you just feel that unnamable, almost unmentionable surge of gratitude for all the people you've known in life and all the kindnesses their presence brought to you? Click here and see that most of them have contemptibly dumb opinions about everything.
The internet doesn't coddle you in a comforting information bubble. It imprisons you in an information cell and closes the walls in on you by a few microns every day. It works with your friends and the major media on the outside to make a study of your worst suspicions about the world and the society you live in. Then it finds the living embodiments of these fears and turns them into your cell mates. And good heavens it is efficient.
An example: I'm worried about the culture on college campuses. Maybe you're not, but I am. The rash of near-riots against right-wing speakers was troubling enough. But the internet wasn't satisfied with the level of anxiety that might inspire in me and it quickly delivered to me dozens of stories about an obscure opinion piece written by an obscure group of college students from a college that had been, until that day, rather obscure to me. These people I'd never heard of wrote an editorial which argues that the concept of "objective truth" is propaganda for white supremacy.
In an age in which print journalism reigned supreme, no one would have known about, heard of, or been troubled by this juvenile brain fart unless one of its authors ran for the U.S. Senate decades later. Back then, the magazine articles delivered to your house by mail were from publications and authors you liked and enjoyed. You engaged in friendships, not friending. The worst message waiting for you in the sanctuary of your home might be the voice of a bill collector, scratchy on your analog tape answering machine. But on the social networks where I used to enjoy looking at pictures and doings of my former classmates, there was this story, waiting to inject a little more of that acid taste in my mouth.
I tried to remind myself that this was trivial bullshit, and didn't effect anything in the world but pointless outrage. But of course that didn't help. The poison of it flowed through me. My mind lit up with the desire to see the hands of a silent and awful deity plunging into the green plushy sward of Earth, pulling its tectonic plates apart, and shaking them until all human life and evidence of our civilization is dispersed into the outer oblivion of space. I desired that alien races, hundreds of millions of years in the future, would find evidence of this celestial event, and read it as a strict warning against subsidizing student loans. I imagined the terror of humanity's richly merited destruction scored to Anton Bruckner's "Mass in E minor," of course.
All of this occurred to me in less than a millisecond. And then I scrolled to the next dumbass news event my friends were sharing.
In fairness, writers on the internet dish this out because we take it. The people who write about politics on the internet often get a half dozen vile messages before lunch, informing them that they should be drawn and quartered, along with their birth parents and pets, preferably. We're just as frightened and just as prone to see the worst in the nameless other as our readers. And you tell us what you're interested in. "If it bleeds it leads," went the old media adage. Now if it proves they're dicks, collect your clicks.
Compare 1997 and 2017. It's ugly. If you're a human American, you're more likely to live alone or with people who aren't related to you than you were in 1997. You're less likely to belong to a church, a bowling league, or a civic association. You're less likely to subscribe to periodicals you like. You're more likely to report a shorter attention span. You're far more likely to have a problem with addiction, whether opioids, porn, or just the flickering screen.
Why do we feel like we're losing? Because the age of being connected to the information superhighway came at the same time so many of us disconnected from everything that is humane, gentle, or life-giving. All those beautiful things in life ask for our attention and reward it. But we're misers at heart, and all the internet asks for is your distraction. Seems cheaper. So we give it. And it rewards us too, in its own way.
I'd recommend the Luddite solution. But I probably can't convince anyone to smash their screens for good. Not even myself. Individual acts of rebellion might be cathartic but not useful. We probably can't change the way the world feels to us now. The night sky that seemed to transmit nothing to us but sympathy back in 1997 is now conveying this ugly, boring, contemptible "content" to your device at this very moment. It is hiding all of that anxiety beneath just enough funny videos of people being injured, or pictures of someone's baby or cat, or pleasant time lapses of cooking that you keep coming back to it. If you gave up your device, your friends would still approach you with theirs.
"Did you see this?" they ask. "Do I want to?" you respond with an expectant smile. But internally your mind repeats it with a sigh. "No, really, do I want to?"
Everyone participates in the culture, even if they don't want to participate. In his book, Beyond Consolation, the Irish writer John Waters spoke about the omnipresence of this culture:
Any attempt to make visible the culture is partly doomed to failure, because it moves and shifts all the time, being governed by the desires and prejudices and terrors of all its members and what they want each other and the world in general to believe about them. I give my tithe to the culture every living moment, feeding into it what I want it to know about me, what I would like it to relate about me, but also much that I do not intend to betray. I blush, an involuntary function, and the culture understands this far more than anything I have said. And the same is true of everyone else, in their relationships with the culture, so the result is something we cannot even begin to describe but at best can acquire an intuitive sense of. [Beyond Consolation]
I pay my tithes, too. If this is a culture of disconnection, anxiety, and flashes of blinding hatred, I must have fed into it somehow. Maybe more so, because I try to describe it and tame it with my words. I don't know how to get us through it, that feeling of losing and precarity that stalks us on the internet.
But I can grant you permission to stop consuming "content" wherever possible. Just resist its pull. Stop reading my column if you must. After all, this is how you got Trump. Thanks Obama. Over and out.