The water’s fine, but maybe don’t come in
Is the Internet turning us into hopeless narcissists, spurring us on to produce a constant flow of image-burnishing tidbits but all the while sapping our ability to create anything meaningful?
No, I haven’t just had a near-death experience, or been tagged by a total stranger in a picture I didn’t know was taken, or had my latest book proposal rejected. The trigger for this heretical notion comes from an e-mail from a friend, a writer, whose own relationship with the Internet is, admittedly, a love/hate one. The email contained a lament that tapped into a thought I’ve sort of had but haven’t, um, had the time to think through.
After recounting a lovely domesticated evening of no particular consequence, my friend opined:
Remember when we used to write e-mails all the time about this minute crap? Remember when you could write anything on your blog and it didn’t matter because no one read it, really, except your best friend and maybe a few others? Remember when it didn’t matter that you ‘only’ had 350 twitter followers? I do. I loved those days. I loved when we weren’t all so busy, when we didn’t give a shit about the popularity contest the Internet has become, when we didn’t have to narrate our every damn move and respond to every damn comment and/or @ message.
I went out for beers last week with my friend … and we talked about all this, and we reminisced on the days when the online world was anonymous and thus, in a sense, more real and honest. We didn’t write essays; we just wrote.
I can’t see how we can really go back to that time, but I miss it. I miss it terribly. Even the people who ‘put it all out there’ — well, it’s different. They’re a ‘brand.’ And I wonder how that inevitably affects how they write.
Yes, we’ve heard variations of this theme before. Television was going to turn us into vegetables. Rock ‘n Roll was going to turn our heads to mush. Texting was going to destroy our ability to write — and e-mail was going to ruin our penmanship. Video games were going to turn our children into sociopathic killers. MTV was going to shorten our attention spans to units that are measured in nanoseconds.
But unlike most of that other stuff the Internet has become an always-on medium, background radiation even as we sleep, as the time-server-synced alarm clock on our smartphone prepares us propel us into another day of full-on connectivity.
I am as guilty as anyone for allowing media to consume most of my waking hours, even though much of it is a job requirement. And I flatter myself to think that my creative output could be better — or even good — if I wasn’t amusing myself to death.
But my friend has a point. When I take a long walk, my mind goes places it does not go otherwise. When I am in one of those increasingly rare venues where I have no access to the Internet, I don’t get restless. It would seem that I can’t put down my smartphones and iPad, but when I am separated from them a milder force does prevail, clarifying rather than clouding, as when the last vestiges of nicotine finally left my body those many years ago I gave up cigarettes.
There is no putting the genie back in the bottle, of course. We can’t uninvent texting, instant messages, e-mail and social media. As someone who remembers the “before” time, take it from me: the world is a much, much better place with these things in it. Even as some, in good faith, try to abide by Screen-Free Week starting today, they will discover that their ability to untether as a theological imperative is difficult, and ultimately ludicrous.
But I am one of the world’s fortunate people, paid for what I know rather than what I can lift, and with that comes an obligation to respect and nurture whatever craft I might have. I have a nagging suspicion that the Internet’s short-form appetite nourishes my own impulses, and that its unrelenting appetite for new content makes me dive right in rather than sit poolside for a while.
So as I reflect on the hours that I have engaged in “witty” Twitter repartee, or the times that I beat myself up for not tending to the garden of my personal blog(s), and question the decision to ever open up a Facebook account, I do have to wonder, as my friend did: Is all this making me a better writer, or just a different one?
Photo: Swimming pool in Sagaponack, Long Island. John C Abell/flickr