The Internet Will Eat Your Soul
Dramatic, I know, but I’m at least half-serious. Part of the reason I’ve been away from this blog for months is that I’ve been re-examining my relationship with the Internet*, and the news is not pretty.
I’ve had increasing trouble with engaging in any task that requires concentration for several years. I’d assumed it was the nature of being the working parent of an active young child and a teacher who is generous with feedback, with fifteen years’ worth of local students who periodically swing by my office or my inbox to say hello. Some of it is, for sure.
When my daughter gets older, my ability to concentrate will increase again, I thought; so far, it hasn’t.
I made to-do lists. I set my alarm for 5 am. I created elaborate schedules.
The distraction will pass, I thought. It kept not passing.
Meanwhile I found myself increasingly upset by reading Facebook and Twitter. It was rhetoric surrounding the election that finally made me deactivate my Facebook account on September 30, but even before that, there was always something. I was losing respect for people I’d liked.
I stuck around, doggedly giving little thumbs-ups and hearts, writing sweet comments even to people who felt tangential to my life. Doing it made me feel resentful, distracted, and depressed — but I continued, because I thought I needed to “keep up,” and maintain relationships in the writing community.
Finally, I thought: what good will contacts do if I am this unhappy? What about really spending time with people? What if I distract myself so much that I never send out work again?
The Internet probably isn’t bad for everyone. It is toxic for me. I can take or leave drinking alcohol, for example; alcohol is not my body’s drug of choice. But the Internet — ah, the Internet, the medium itself and the glowing screen and the endless links, not Internet gambling, not Internet shopping — it’s a huge problem for the body I live inside.
I throw this out there, unpopular as I think it is to say, because I’ve found very little written about it. I suspect (and now we’re getting into my own armchair philosophy) a high percentage of people have this problem, and someday, in some way, website design will be regulated in the same ways we regulate other addictive substances.
One day I sat in Kopplin’s Coffee, coffee being another one of my body’s drugs of choice, and made a list of reasons I find the Internet spiritually toxic. There is no way I am the only writer who feels this way.
Here is my list:
1. I get distracted. I forget what I came for. I forget about other tasks I’ve set for myself that day. I sit in front of a glowing screen, click a mouse, and disappear into a trance.
2. I feel emotions about others — anger, contempt, worry, envy, insecurity — that I don’t tend to feel when I interact with them in real life, or even in print. And I dislike what online interactions can bring out in others: the desire to judge, shame, pile on, mock, and humiliate.
3. When I spend time online, I feel ungrounded, and as if I have no control over my life.
4. My relationships with people become asymmetrical. When I’ve read someone’s page or timeline, I feel I’ve interacted with them, but I haven’t. In its mildest form, this means I rob myself of real engagement with them; at worst, I obsess in a negative way about someone who has no idea I’m even thinking about them, and can’t resolve my feelings in a positive way.
5. It’s slow to look up or do something online. Online grade books, for example, are clunky and don’t allow for weird little marks that only I understand.
6. The Internet generates dissatisfaction. With millions of pairs of jeans, flash sales and product drops — the illusion is created that it is possible to make a best choice among seemingly infinite choices. Choosing becomes weighty in a way that it is not when I stand in the aisle of a store, look at three items, and choose one that is Good Enough.
7. The Internet is a medium on which fear-based emotions play well — self-righteousness, anger, drama, shame. Subtlety and nuance don’t.
8. It is a medium that does well with future-based speculations, what-ifs. Which is also ungrounding, and induces a lot of fear.
9. I am frightened by the vehemence, witch hunts, and vigilante justice I see executed online. When I interact online, I become more self-conscious and guarded about my thoughts.
10. When an upsetting event is unfolding, following it online is like picking a scab 24/7. Life does not move at the speed that people type. As a good friend recently and wisely said to me, “It only feels as if you’re doing something by worrying about it.” Reading about a developing news event ad nauseum is a slightly more tangible form of worrying.
It’s ironic to say this in an online venue, but any freedom I felt while using the Internet in the nineties is long gone. I looked at my Facebook account for the last time, as said, in September. I still have a Twitter, but it will deactivate in the next few weeks if I don’t log in.
You can contact me via e-mail or this website. I pretty much live in the physical world these days. I really like it.
I try to use the phone more than I used to. I know that I’m losing traffic to this website by not promoting blog posts through social media, but, at least for now, there you are. And here I am.
* For grammar and usage nerds: AP no longer capitalizes Internet, but the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style does.