This long essay by Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine, detailing how his obsessive Internet use wrecked his health and life, is a searing commentary on the dehumanizing effects of pervasive technology. It’s also a wake-up call even to moderate tech hounds and social-media users: Have you realized just how comprehensively technology molds your life? How different your life would be without it? How miserably addicted you are? Do you even have a life?
This paragraph in particular struck me in the gut:
I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard. I tried meditation, but my mind bucked and bridled as I tried to still it. I got a steady workout routine, and it gave me the only relief I could measure for an hour or so a day. But over time in this pervasive virtual world, the online clamor grew louder and louder. Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise. So much of it was irresistible, as I fully understood. So much of the technology was irreversible, as I also knew. But I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.
The omnipresence of the Internet is the omnipresence of distraction. There was a time in my own life when I could read at length — several hours, say — and feel enveloped in the material: the thought of finishing a page quickly to I could scurry off to some other activity never occurred to me. Reading was what I wanted to scurry off to. Reading, then, was an end in itself, not a task to be tolerated and completed. It still is an end in itself, but I don’t feel the kind of total engagement as often as I once did. It happens, but it requires a not-insignificant amount of exertion and energy to get myself into the physical and mental state where it’s possible. Far too often my reading is rushed and unenjoyable. I noticed this change only within the past 3 years or so — specifically after I bought my first smartphone and began using Twitter more regularly.
The logical answer is to ditch the smartphone and Twitter, right? But technology moves with the world, and the world moves with technology. And what should we do? Should we move with it? Is there any other choice? Just as it’s nearly impossible to avoid motorized transportation — at one time a luxury and new-fangled novelty in American society — so it’s nearly impossible to avoid computerized communication.
This holds true even though everyone instinctively knows that technology cheapens human relationships. We all know this is terrible for us, and yet the ease, utility, and narcotic effect of pervasive technology makes it impossible to stop. It’s as if smoking three packs a day became a necessity of the global economy.
When Sullivan first announced his retirement from perpetual punditry, also known as “blogging,” I wrote in PJ Media:
…with our lives increasingly synced and integrated with electronic online devices, there is a constant need to be “on,” in the moment, all the time… but not with any real people. This is exhausting, in a way that interaction with actual humans is not.
Forgive me for quoting myself, but I don’t know how this ends — or even what the next stage is. For now, I’ll retreat into bromides and say that the problem will get worse before it gets better, if it gets better at all.