As I get older, explicitly political questions interest me less and less, and I’m motivated more and more to write about human conditions that are, in a sense, pre-political. I feel that intensely when it comes to the various conversations that we’re having about the role of digital technology in our lives.
I remember seeing a lot of people justifying that screenshot up there with, "oh they're just introverts. It's fine."
I am what they'd call "an introvert", and let me tell ya, those answers do not sound like me when I'm in a healthy mood. Just spitballing here, but I would even posit that "being pleasantly alone" has suffered as much as "making meaningful human connections". There's just that grey fugue, interacting with a screen, not quite alone, not quite with others.
This piece is what finally got me to upgrade to paid. It’s an important piece that expresses the inchoate fear and sadness a lot of Gen X folks have thinking about the lives of our younger friends and children.
The extent to which we are automating our own dehumanization, and doing it first on our children, terrifies me.
The amount of grown ass adults sharing that screenshot as a “gotcha” to the people worried about social media was wild. We’ve lost the fucking plot here. Since when do 12/13 year old kids know what’s best for themselves? That is literally the worst age for determining what healthy social dynamics look like. Kids are just starting to build real relationships and gain a sense of self at that age. Of course being online is more comfortable.
What’s interesting to me is that these kids sound EXACTLY like me trying to justify smoking weed every day when I was 16/17. “I just feel like myself when I’m high, I feel peaceful and confident” etc. was something I always said. I was obviously wrong. I was deeply depressed and had strong emotions due to life events that I had no idea how to deal with. Smoking weed was a way to avoid facing myself... until it wasn’t. I started having panic attacks when I smoked, where all the emotions I suppressed came at me 10x stronger. You’d think I would stop smoking, but instead I just started popping a Xanax before taking a dab, further destroying my already poor ADHD-addled working memory.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I truly realized the consequences of avoiding myself, and now I’m still here picking up the pieces in my late 20’s trying to figure out who I really am. I fear this is happening on a massive scale to kids right now. Coincidentally I’m sure these kids also have an extremely blase attitude for weed as well, and it goes hand in hand with internet isolation.
I loved this piece. As a (very) minor aside, it also makes me want another, different piece: a piece that sets out how tik tok isn't just bad because of the attentional issues set out in this post, but also bad on an almost metaphysical level, on the plane of the soul, in how it trains people to perform, perform, perform, perform, mould themselves, their speech, their bedrooms, their affect, into whatever form most closely resembles whatever it is that this insane new form of celebrity produces. (And how it's also bad on a purely aesthetic level, featuring brutally smashed and stepped on video compression, truly demonic text to speech soundtracks, the Same Fucking Song everyone else is using that week, soul destroying to-camera gazes, shoddy green-screening, grotesque emoji captioning, all so some fuckwit can take forty seconds to tell me something he could have put into fucking writing in the first place.) There's also something to be said about how reading lets you take things at whatever pace you like, podcasts let you do your chores while you listen, but these fucking videos work on the basis that they'll string you along, dole out the #content at its own pace, demanding you stare at the screen until they're finished with you.
If anyone else has already written this, I'd love to read it.
One of the things that’s so frustrating about everything you’re describing here is that everyone you talk to seems to understand almost instinctually that it’s bad, but no one seems to want to do anything. Everyone understands it’s probably bad to have six hours of screen time a day, they understand it’s even worse for people to experience that basically from childhood. They know it’s bad because they know personally how empty it is. But we haven’t found a way to meaningfully “opt out” of any of it for the most part.
Because I lack self control, and because I finally realized what all this was doing to me, I switched to a flip phone. There are some people who get it, but almost everyone else treats me as if I am denying reality--the reality being that there is no escape from any of this. I really hope as time goes on I meet more people like the kids from that recent NYT article, people who are doing all they can to remove theirselves from the pit of hedonism you described so perfectly here
Here is your regularly-scheduled link to "The Machine Stops" by EM Forster, a sci-fi story written 114 years ago about exactly where we're finding ourselves today: https://www.cs.ucdavis.edu/~koehl/Teaching/ECS188/PDF_files/Machine_stops.pdf
I brought this up in someone else's comment section recently, and I've been ruminating on it ever since: I quit Twitter and Instagram in 2020 (and got rid of 80% of my Facebook friends), at a point where the depression of isolation and the histrionic politicization of everything combined to make me feel so lonely, and so furious with the people I knew I loved, that I bailed without notice rather than look at another fucking black square, another empty repetition of a nothing slogan, when I was dying for want of a real conversation.
And nobody noticed. Not a single person. Not the dear friends I'd known since I was a child, not the new friends I'd started to get close to after moving to a new state, not the people I texted with every single day, not the people I spoke to little but enjoyed a long phone call with every few months. My one-day-to-the-next disappearance was invisible. When I finally got to see my friends in person again, close to a year later, one of them referenced something she'd posted on Instagram that day with the assumption I'd seen it; she had no idea, no one in the room had any idea, that I hadn't seen a thing on Instagram in months. And it damaged our friendships not at all. Social media was doing no work whatsoever in keeping us connected, but I truly believed it had been.
I moved around a lot as a young adult and I made a lot of friends online, some of whom I still talk to one-on-one regularly and some of whom I have visited or hosted and some of whom came to my wedding. But the longest-lasting online friendships are those I made before the advent of social media, back when social interaction online was still one-on-one and based around specific mutual interests. In a small forum of familiar faces, you noticed when someone wasn't there for a whole week, when you said something expecting a response from them and didn't get it. This piece nails the ephemeral nature of social media: It is designed to disappear. It makes us disappear. And, from what these kids are saying, maybe introduced sufficiently early it makes us *want* to disappear, and that frightens me.
During the tail end of covid social distancing, my two nearly teen kids would gather outside with friends after having been stuck in the house for way too long. But the vibe of the peer group had shifted and my son shared a perfect summary: I always push to ride bikes because my friends with smartphones have to talk instead of looking at their screens.
A couple of those kids have fallen in to the world of online games, endless videos, and porn. Fewer teams and clubs, more isolation. I find it baffling that their parents allow the unfettered access but I think they see it as a social surrogate rather than the actual cause of the problem.
You are one of my favorite writers and this is one of the best articles you have written. I am grateful; you articulate what so many of us feel (and know) about being online.
Wow, what a beautiful piece. I am very thankful my parents were pretty hands off and understood that part of growing up was making my own mistakes and experiencing the highs and lows of life. I had to get punched in the face, try to hit on a girl at a party and get shut down, get dumped and have my heart broken, drink until I threw up all over myself, take too much acid and have a bad trip, get fired from a job, say something dumb and get made fun of by a big group. But I eventually learned through trial and error and built resilience. And when the highs did come - getting laid, falling in love, camping and seeing the beauty of nature, hugging random strangers at a concert, partying with friends until sunrise, getting truly good at a few skills, reading something beautiful that stirred my soul - I appreciated the highs.
You can’t even be alone pumping gas these days - loud video screens on the pumps themselves blasting ads at you at many stations.
I just read The Coddling of the American Mind. Now some might think of Haidt as some sort of fascist, idk but as a parent of a young child I felt like it was an essential PARENTING book. We must not allow our children to become prisoners in their own padded rooms. Children need to experience failure, hurt, loss etc.
There’s a compelling illusion of instant meaning that can occur online and I think is a real part of the draw. In comparison, real life feels hard and boring and repetitive and often only feels meaningful in retrospect.
I shall expand.
The center of gravity of my life is very not online compared to many folks I know. I work an in-person job (nurse practitioner in a hospital) 12 hours a day for seven days in a row. This is then followed by a week off work single-mothering my grade schooler, a week anchored by the following events:
—at least one dinner with the extended family
—an hour of Sunday school followed by an hour of church
—community orchestra rehearsal for me (which is extra grandma time for kiddo)
—dinner and/or home movie night with a local friend
—a shifting but seasonally predictable rota of extra church events, Little League practice and games, family celebrations, etc.
Very little of any of this involves the sense of intense meaning folks I know get from—and from which I also used to glean!—being deeply embedded in online culture, where (quite literally!) every syllable—nay, every keystroke—seems weighted with meaning.
“Folks” vs “Folx” acquires this wildly disproportionate weight and importance next to which my hour of violin practice prior to rehearsal seems totally banal.
Hitting “repost” on folks’ (er…..folx?) little black Instagram squares feels like an almost spiritual act of solidarity next to which my weekly recitation of the Nicene Creed seems like a dry, rote exercise of thoughtless conformity.
Venmoing money to a social justice influencer is a praiseworthy and community-building act of reparation, next to which trotting over to my sister’s house for a few hours to mind the baby so she can nap seems like pure self-absorbed self-indulgence.
Examined close up, Real Life seems so boring and unimportant and meaningless in comparison to the jewel-toned import of what’s available on social media.
All it takes for me is one half-step back for me to see how wildly happier I am than when I conducted my life mainly online, how much more fulfilling and actually meaningful it is (at least to me), and how I would never in a million years trade it for the shadow-puppet world I used to live in.
But damn, that illusion is convincing. Idk what does it—what makes the fake seem so much more meaningful than the real. And while I don’t fully understand why that is (curious to hear thoughts!) I think that’s a significant part of what is going on for people.
Wonderful piece. The photo of the kids doing jumps on their bikes really hit home.
The optimist in me says that the pendulum will swing back, and the importance of in-person interaction will be recognized again. With AI flooding the internet, not knowing who is who (or if it is a "who" vs "what"), elaborate scams, fraud, lack of digital security, etc etc—people wont let things stay that crazy forever. This is all so new and moving so fast; I suspect that if we take the patient long view, we will see human nature reassert itself, and most people will realize they don't find the 100% digital life ultimately fulfilling. There will always be some people will disappear into the AI internet and only interact with computers and trying to live out their own personal Black Mirror episode, but those people have always been around and will look for anything to distract them from existing.
There is a balance somewhere.
In hindsight, Aldous Huxley may have been something of a sunny optimist...
I remain firm in my belief that one day people will look back from the ruins (literal or metaphorical) and universally declare that the internet was a civilizational catastrophe, in the precise meaning of the word - an enormous, all-embracing disaster. (You're making this assertion on the internet, guy - I know, I know, dammit!)
The internet was the COVID before COVID; we were in no way prepared for it, economically, socially, politically, emotionally, spiritually, any category you choose. Benefits? Of course - it's an ill wind that blows no one any good - but overall, it's been a destroyer.
One day, the last person with adult memory of the world before the internet will die, and that will mark the crossing of a border as significant as any in human history. This neanderthal is glad he won't be around to live on the other side.
Thanks, Freddie - I really wanted to launch a spittle-flecked rant this morning before I even have my corn pops!