|Charlie Chaplin in City Lights (1931). Via designingsound.org.|
Every December I read hundreds of long-form essays to select the Sidney Awards, and every year I regret that I spend so much of the other 11 months reading online trivia. Then, every January, I revert to Twitter.David, David! Twitter is on the Internet, you know. We can easily find out what you do with Twitter in January, which is essentially nothing.
Your personal account, opened in June 2011, is still an egg (yes, I'm sure it's you because of the followees we have in common—Ana Marie Cox and Jake Tapper—not to mention a number of other familiar names including that of Anne Snyder) and you've only sent seven Tweets in the five and a half years. On only eleven occasions have you been interested enough in somebody else's tweet to "like" it, four of them in the past year, most recently on November 28 (a link to Benjamin Wittes's possibly premature judgment that there was nothing partisan about James Comey's letter to the Gang of Eight intelligence congresscritters which Chaffetz leaked as soon as he got it for unquestionably partisan purposes). You have committed one single retweet.
Your personal Facebook page is a little livelier than that—seven updates in 2016 out of a total of 13 since May 2012, of which the top two, November 22, are about incorporating Ms. Snyder into the profile picture, and a total of 58 likes since signing up—but I just want to stipulate that it's hard to imagine spending 11 months per year reading online trivia at such an exceedingly low level of interactivity. If you are that passive even as the amount of time you are spending on social media is enough to prevent you from reading long-form essays, you are seriously doing it wrong. There's a reason for calling them "social". Or else, of course, this picture is pure fiction.
It's certainly fiction when he claims he reads "hundreds of essays" in December. I'd be surprised if it was 20, counting the shoutouts to people he knows, like the poet Christian Wiman in Tuesday's column, whose essay "The Bright Abyss" has inspired three Brooks columns in the past two years, or Andrew Sullivan today, for an essay he already wrote about back in October, so I guess that's one essay he managed to look at before December. "Looks at" because to say he legit reads them is also fiction,
Andrew Sullivan got sucked into the online addiction in a big way, yanked himself away from it and wrote a brilliant essay on the process for New York magazine called “I Used to Be a Human Being.”...
Sullivan cut the cord, went to a silent retreat center and promptly collapsed. Issues from his traumatic childhood flooded back.It wasn't "promptly" but after three days of a ten-day retreat, and to the extent he "yanked" himself away from Internet addiction by the meditation practice he learned there, he wasn't quite successful, because some months later it was all back:
after a while, I was back in my old rut, absorbing every nugget of campaign news, even as I understood each to be as ephemeral as the last, and even though I no longer needed to absorb them all for work.
Then there were the other snares: the allure of online porn, now blasting through the defenses of every teenager; the ease of replacing every conversation with a texting stream; the escape of living for a while in an online game where all the hazards of real human interaction are banished; the new video features on Instagram, and new friends to follow. It all slowly chipped away at my meditative composure. I cut my daily silences from one hour to 25 minutes; and then, almost a year later, to every other day. I knew this was fatal — that the key to gaining sustainable composure from meditation was rigorous discipline and practice, every day, whether you felt like it or not, whether it felt as if it were working or not. Like weekly Mass, it is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe. But the world I rejoined seemed to conspire to take that space away from me.Sully does that much porn, and gaming too? Perhaps for Brooks it's all porn, and he just thinks he's on the Twitter because for goodness' sake what else would he be doing?
The Sullivan piece is very well written, as a matter of fact, in spite of the author's relapse—too bad Brooks didn't have time to find out how it ended—but it too is missing something about the online life which I noticed looking at, of all things, the Facebook timeline of the ex-Mrs. Brooks, which I blundered onto in the course of messing around this morning.
I'm not going to link that—you can look for it if you want, but she's not a public person, and the fact of the matter is we probably all have at least one person like that in our Facebook feeds: I mean the commonplace good person, who uses social media not as a substitute for but an extension of a lively and satisfying family and social life.
To Sullivan, when he became the king of the rightbloggers,
Everything else — health, friendships — atrophied: “Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.” He also came to understand that we don’t really control our time online. Our clicks are seduced by technologists superbly able to suck us in.The unforced unconscious obscenity of that last sentence is something special, isn't it, along with the slithering alliteration?
To the former Mrs. B, anyway, nothing like this happens. She's in perfect control of her time online. She shares opinions and recipes, asks questions, admires her kids and invites them to feel good about themselves, works through the Hanukkah observances and the election horrors (she's pretty clearly a Clinton voter and deeply upset by the outcome, she's also clearly still a big-C Conservative Jew and a Likud-bamboozled Zionist, as many lovely people of my acquaintance are, not everybody has time to think that through adequately), remembers good old moments with friends and plans new ones.
You can see she's not missing any meatspace interactions, any more than she was 15 or 20 years ago with her use of the phone; she's arranging for more of them than she might otherwise have. The Facebook really enhances her life, with the pictures and the hyperlinks and the breadth of communication—it doesn't diminish it at all, as it does Sullivan's.
It's not really the fault of the Internet, you see. Sullivan's and Brooks's problem isn't what they think it is, in any case. They profess to be worried about the closing off of human interaction—
the allure of virtual interaction has helped decimate the space for actual community. When we enter a coffee shop in which everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds, we respond by creating one of our own. When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in her private zone, you don’t. And slowly, the whole concept of a public space — where we meet and engage and learn from our fellow citizens — evaporates.—but what Sully really wants is no interaction at all; they love talking about some kind of nineteenth-century ideal of community, some quilting-bee barn-raising social sweetness, but that's all theory. What Sully's passionate about, what he says when he's telling the truth, is silence, silence and solitude:
That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence.... But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.And at the same time fearing it, fearing and yearning at he same time. They can't face silence and solitude either, that was the cause of that day-three breakdown, because of the moral twisting these dudes have undergone. They don't want to be around people, they long to be free of interaction, but once they're alone they go to the Internet for the noise, to shut down the pitiable howling in their hearts.
Bonus: Mark Twain, vintage 1880, on telephonic conversation.