Monday, November 29, 2010

"Look Up into the Stars and You're Gone": The Internet, Distraction, and the Vanity of Modern Culture

“When everybody else refrained,
My uncle Johnny did cocaine.
He’s convinced himself right in his brain
That it helps to take away the pain.
Hey Johnny…”
– The Killers, “Uncle Johnny” (2006)

As a result of my “arrest” at the age of fourteen for making “terrorist threats,” I was grounded from the Internet for three years. It was a fine time in my life, right up until the end: I read Lord of the Rings, and Catch-22, and The Christ Clone Trilogy (yeah, don’t be hatin’), and the novels of Frank Peretti and Charles Williams and probably about a dozen other authors. I spent an entire summer typing up a history textbook, ten hours a day for thirty days. I memorized huge portions of the Bible.

I become all the more grateful as I realize I might have been born in the last generation in which such a life was possible. I’m old enough to remember a time before the Internet (and most of our subsequent modern technologies), and thus old enough to remember a time before it had become everything. I remember Newt Gingrich shutting down the government in January 1995 and not feeling the urge to “Tweet” about it. I remember when people still used AOL, and when "lolz" was just something you hit when life slowed down a bit (remember when life slowed down?).

The reason I find myself waxing suddenly so sentimental is because it seems every doctor, professor, counselor, high school history teacher, scientist, politician, and blogger in America has decided that this was the year they were finally going to finish that book they always wanted to write about how the Internet is physically reshaping our brains and destroying the attention span of an entire generation. Anyone looking for a bit of extra Christmas money need only dash off a few hundred pseudo-academic, hastily-researched pages on how—isn’t it the strangest thing?—lately they’ve been finding themselves so easily distracted… —and the publishers will line up at your door. I’ve seen more books about the dangers of Internet usage this year than I have children’s fantasies about magical boarding schools.

First out of the gate this summer was Nicholas Carr, who in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, expanded on a theme he had first discussed in an article for The Atlantic Monthly two years earlier. His was the most controversial, and at this point probably the most incisive; when I opened the pages of the New York Times Book Review four days ago and discovered a review for a newly-published work entitled The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, by David L. Ulin, it was obvious that a certain amount of ennui had set in among the educated classes. “The publishing industry, like every industry, needs product to push,” writes Christopher Beha. “[N]otwithstanding the fact that a truly necessary book is a rare thing. Here is a challenging and confounding truth you won’t find anywhere in Ulin’s pages: There are too many books, and this is part of the problem. David Ulin’s intentions are beyond reproach, but his book is another distraction.”

Ouch. You can almost hear the groans as the book reviewers excitedly tear open their new packages of books to be reviewed, only to find that—alas!—they’re living in the year 2010, and the only people who haven’t been pulled into the Internet are the ones writing books about it. Indeed, the increasingly laborious, increasingly ominous titles of these terrifying tomes have a definitive flavor of Harry Potter about them: One thinks, for example, of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, and Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (exactly what I was planning on titling my first fantasy novel, but my agent insisted it was “too scary”).

This is from the Publisher’s Weekly review of that last book, written by Maggie Jackson: “… Our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion and addiction to multitasking are eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention—the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress and stunting society’s ability to comprehend what’s relevant and permanent.” All profoundly true; one of the great problems I find in discussions of these books about the stultifying effects of Internet usage is that while everyone seems to recognize the problem, no one seems to have any notion of a solution, and thus most of those doing the discussing are as trapped in the vortex as anyone else. If not more: it can create a certain sense of cognitive dissonance to scroll through a long series of blog posts on diminished attention spans written by someone (Andrew Sullivan, say) who spends twelve to sixteen hours a day blogging.

The last few weeks have produced two widely-discussed essays on the issue, the first one from a serial blogger, the second from a novelist of some repute. The film critic Roger Ebert wrote a blog post on his website entitled All the Lonely People, in which he wonders aloud why the Internet seems to attract all the loneliest sorts of people ( As lucid and witty as Mr. Ebert nearly always is, he can also be profoundly moving:

"Lonely people have a natural affinity for the internet. It's always there waiting, patient, flexible, suitable for every mood. But there are times when the net reminds me of the definition of a bore by Meyer the hairy economist, best friend of Travis McGee: "You know what a bore is, Travis. Someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with companionship."

"What do lonely people desire? Companionship. Love. Recognition. Entertainment. Camaraderie. Distraction. Encouragement. Change. Feedback. Someone once said the fundamental reason we get married is because [we] have a universal human need for a witness. All of these are possibilities. But what all lonely people share is a desire not to be – or at least not to feel – alone…

"When I was a child the mailman came once a day. Now the mail arrives every moment. I used to believe it was preposterous that people could fall in love online. Now I see that all relationships are virtual, even those that take place in person. Whether we use our bodies or a keyboard, it all comes down to two minds crying out from their solitude."

This post created a reaction the likes of which he had never before seen on his blog. Hundreds of people responded to tell him their stories, to explain why they were bound to the Internet, to defend the small, irresistible pleasures of the sixteen-inch life.

What I found more haunting than the post itself, was a particular remark near the top of the comments section. “Almost everybody I know, either personally, second-handedly, or observationally, has turned to the opiates of the current day. Escapist entertainments, the addictions of rage and intolerance, alcohol and drugs and emotionally absent sex, endless political square offs… the void seems to be growing.”

To which Mr. Ebert replied, “Sometimes I feel that in my lifetime I have seen a healthy society ripped to pieces.”

In her review of David Fincher’s new film The Social Network (, British author Zadie Smith distinguishes between what she calls “1.0 people” and “2.0 people.” 1.0 people grew up in the world as it was before texting and blogging and Facebook; to one degree or another, they’re struggling to maintain some measure of depth and three-dimensionality; light doesn’t just pass through them. 2.0 people are always connected, always on the go. It’s as though they’re perpetually late for an appointment, but never seem to know where they’re going.

She ponders the possibility of a world in which the whole Internet will become like Facebook: “Falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous.” “If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out… It seemed significant to me that on the way to the movie theater, while doing a small mental calculation (how old I was when at Harvard; how old I am now), I had a Person 1.0 panic attack. Soon I will be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a Zuckerberg sweat, my heart went crazy, I had to stop and lean against a trashcan. Can you have that feeling, on Facebook? I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX.”

I remember in the summer of 2005, when we first discovered Facebook, Booth’s dire prognostication that it would take over the world. At the time, Facebook was only accessible by students with access to university email accounts, and numbered hardly more than fifty million people. Today it claims 500 million and growing (even my parents have it), and it recently unveiled a new email service of its own, and I received a notice in my inbox this afternoon informing me that it’s now planning to integrate with Skype. Soon there will no longer be an Internet; there will just be Facebook. (Booth, incidentally, deactivated his account over a year ago, when it finally occurred to him that his prediction had come true).

When I was twelve years old, I gave up watching television altogether so that I could read the novel War and Peace. I never took it up again—except for LOST, and the first few seasons of The Office, which I watched online, it seemed a massive waste of time, a huge, gaping hole in the center of our modern life where heart and thought had dissipated in a void of tired sitcom jokes and deadeningly-stupid advertisements. Yet now I read in the London Daily Mail that the Internet is actually more detrimental to the brains of growing children than television is, because it offers the promise of immediate gratification rather than the ten-minute span of attention required for a show, or the two hours for a movie. Only now, for some reason, does it occur to me that all the reasons for which I grew up hating television are amplified and exacerbated by the lure of the Internet. To me the Internet always seemed a refuge from television—a quiet, sane, controllable retreat from the poisoned world of professional wrestling and maddening suburban jingles. I promised myself long ago, during that luminous summer of Tolstoy in fact, that when I grew up and got married, I would never, ever let a television in my house. Yet the Internet has become vastly more unwieldy, more inexorable, more addictive, more draining—and more indispensable. How do you get rid of something that you can’t do without?

Last week I took the first step. On Thanksgiving Day and the day after I shut myself in the cupboard under our stairs with only a lamp, a blanket, a few books, a package of tortillas, some honey, and a notebook; and I only emerged once a day to shower and stroll about for a few minutes in sunlight. Only when you attempt to undertake something of that magnitude do you begin to feel the pull it has on you. There’s an itch in the heart that I cannot resist. I had tried to sit still, but I couldn’t; I was yanked by invisible chains from one distraction to the next. It didn’t even have to be the Internet; it could have been anything. I would awake in the morning, read three pages of a book, set it down and find another, scan a few lines of a poem, check my blogs, check the news, write a paragraph in my novel, not like it, have to rewrite it five or six times… then I would set my computer on the floor and try to pray. A moment later, I would take up another book—it was irresistible—I couldn’t bear to be alone. That hole was all-consuming—and had ravaged all my inner life. I had an insatiable need to be preoccupied at every moment of the day. “Hell and destruction are never full,” saith the Proverbs; “so the eyes of man are never satisfied” (Prov. 27:20).

When I went into the cupboard, I discovered the key to it all: intense amounts of shame—intense amounts of fear. I was afraid to confront my own failings, and afraid of grace. I was afraid that if I stopped reading and writing and working, even for a moment, I would be bombarded with the unbearable reality of my pitiable condition. My heart was like the Guatemalan sinkhole; I was being drawn to the edge; underneath me yawned a terrible abyss; but I couldn’t look down, it was awful, if once I faced the blackness, and the blankness, and the bleakness of my inner life, the ground would give way and I would plunge headlong into condemnation, scorn, and self-reproach, down, down, down, into the very depths of hell. I realized that everything I said, everything I did, nearly everything I thought about, was an attempt to escape the unthinkable horror of my own existence. I realized there were pains in my past so horrific that I expended virtually all my time and energy in walling myself off altogether, that I might not have to face them. SEARING PAIN—O God, the pain of it goes on forever! I remembered the scene in Pi ( where Max finds the brain in the subway station—it’s his own brain, though he doesn’t know it—and he touches it with a pen, and the pain splits his skull asunder. Leave me alone in the room for an hour, or a day, or a week, with nothing between me and God but the walls of my heart, and the agony of the encounter is likely to drive me insane.

And yet the depth of His presence—the richness of His knowledge—and the comfort of His healing—were my only hope.

There in the cupboard, I thought very long, and (for the first time in a long time), very deeply, about an article I had read that weekend in the New York Times: “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” ( It narrates the life of a boy named Sean, who plays four hours of video games on weekdays, and twice that on weekends. “He says he sometimes wishes that his parents would force him to quit playing and study, because he finds it hard to quit when given the choice. Still, he says, video games are not responsible for his lack of focus, asserting that in another era he would have been distracted by TV or something else.”

Sean remarks, “Video games don’t make the hole; they fill it.”

There’s a song by the Killers called “Uncle Johnny”, the lyrics of which I borrowed for the epigraph to this entry. Brandon Flowers wrote it about his Uncle Johnny—who, incidentally, loves the song—and who for a long season of his life was devastated by cocaine addiction. As with most Killers songs, however, the song grows and develops with an intensity both musical and lyrical, eventually addressing devils and dilemmas far beyond its stated purpose. Half the song is sung from the perspective of his uncle, half from that of family members who are pleading with him to seek help. “My appetite ain’t got no heart,” sings Johnny: “I said, my appetite ain’t got no heart / Shockin’ people when you feel that pull / Shock and drop ‘em when you know it’s full,” eventually admitting, “I feel a burning in my body core / It’s a yearning that you can’t ignore…”

To which Brandon cries (somewhat sarcastically, I feel), “Hey Johnny, I got faith in you, man, I mean it! It’s gonna be ALL right…” And the whole family sings in unison: “Tell us what’s going on, feels like everything’s wrong / If the future is real, Johnny, you’ve got to heal…”

Yes, Johnny is addicted to drugs—but he’s hardly alone. The things that you love will destroy you.

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