As I See It: The Author As Infant
November 3, 2014 Victor Rozek
Vladimir Putin is flexing. Testing air defenses here, coastal defenses there, reminding the world of Russia’s nuclear prowess, and implying his willingness to engage in World War III. And he’s just petulant enough to do it. Oorahsky! Meanwhile, China is bullying its helpless neighbors, gobbling up additional resources and territory to support its voracious appetites.
These are serious stories that deserve my attention and concern, but the Internet offers too many distractions, and the pull of entertainment is strong. I’m scrolling down Yahoo’s home page and in seconds my attention is highjacked by World Series coverage, college football highlights, lava flowing on the Big Island, winter vacation recommendations (stay away from the lava), an explanation of why Mormons wear funny underwear, a UFO as large as the Earth spotted entering the Sun, and evidence that Hilary Duff was seen holding hands with her estranged husband Mike Comrie. Whoever they are.
I mean, does it get better than that? Why, yes. About two percent of Anglican priests apparently don’t believe in God. Then there’s Halle Berry’s “new affordable lingerie line.” I’ll bet she could pry Putin from the warm embrace of Mother Russia. Maybe I should send him a link? But I have no time to save the world: I’m too busy becoming infantilized.
Not all information that technology brings us is enlightening, and day-by-day I feel myself slowly morphing into a computer peripheral, a soft storage device for a daily assortment of electronic trash. Content that was once only suitable for tacky tabloids has acquired both universality and respectability by migrating on-line. Where else could a discerning reader discover that Barack Obama has the Mark of the Beast! Good to know a Democrat can still inspire fear.
Information technology and social media have created a paradox. On the one hand, they offer an infinite variety of choices. But those choices are self-limiting. Each selection updates a personal profile that slowly pears away the very variety that is the essence of a global communications system. All too easily, the Internet becomes a smorgasbord of guilty pleasures where the serving tables are groaning with empty calories, replenished as quickly as they are consumed. Like a diet of fast food, however, the consequences of overeating come later.
Even serious content providers like The Washington Post are developing abbreviated versions of news stories for hand-held devices. If reading is a burden, or your attention span is shorter than a Kim Kardashian marriage, you can shun the full meal and just get the McNuggets.
For all of the information technology at our disposal, Americans remain notoriously uninformed. As we near midterm elections, the Los Angeles Times reports that almost half of the American public doesn’t know that each state gets two senators. Whether it’s a persistent belief in death panels, the existence of WMD in Iraq, the denial of evolution and climate change, or a lack of interest in anything beyond our borders, Americans are blissfully living in echo chambers of their own making. If, as Goya said, “the sleep of reason produces monsters,” the trance of the Internet produces digital zombies.
According to Pew Research, 30 percent of adult Americans get their news from that bastion of the fourth estate we call Facebook. Which means that the totality of their exposure to world events is delimited by an algorithm that predicts what they may want to read. Customized feeds are elegant, but they only pump out more of the same. Horizons shrink. Dissenting ideas are omitted by design. It’s GIGO on steroids.
Undeniably, the Internet and social media offer escape and comfort. The virtual world is rife with the alluring possibility of instant gratification, and social media dangles the eternal hope of finding meaningful human connection. That’s a lot, and it’s heady stuff. As I travel through what cultural critic Lee Siegel calls “the placeless place,” I have the impression of commanding a private digital spaceship that goes only where I want it to go and shows me only what I want to see. It may be illusory, but the sense of absolute power and control people experience online rivals anything available to them in day-to-day life.
The price for such omniscience, however, is a loss of self-rapport. As my focus branches outward navigating through a thicket of data feeds; as all of my information and entertainment come from external sources; as most of my thoughts and feelings are responses to electronic stimulation, I lose connection with myself and my own body. When I abandon contemplative thought and critical evaluation in favor of greater quantities of fluff, I become less and less involved in my own life. There is always one more site to visit, one more video to view. And social media is a mirror of other people’s response to me, so I become a captive of their interest or lack of it. As a result, I take less time to explore and understand my authentic preferences â€“ what I really want in each moment, how I want my life to be. Besides, building a life is unnecessary when every spare moment can be filled by a collection of devices at my disposal.
The University of Pennsylvania is offering a new class next semester provocatively named Wasting Time on the Internet. According to tech columnist Alyssa Bereznak, “students will be asked to find meaning in the time they spend alone with a computer.” Good luck with that. Parents footing the tuition may think their kids already excel in that arena.
The problem with any addiction is that you can never get enough of what you don’t really want. But because the power of the compulsion is so great, the tendency is to double-down and indulge in more of what’s making you sick. It’s why drug addicts OD, runners keep running until their knees crumble, and overweight people keep right on eating into obesity. Just one more hit, one more mile, one more carton of ice cream, one more pornographic video, one more tweet, one more text, one more hour surfing the Internet, and then I’ll be happy. Stop, rest, repeat.
OK, no more excuses. I need to reclaim my life while I’m still conscious enough to understand that the Internet is like Oakland–there is no there there. There is, however, a world to be saved and I must sweep up what’s left of my brain cells and do my part.
Oh, wait a minute. I just opened another window and it says that Victoria’s Secret “Perfect Body” ads are sparking a social media outcry. As a socially conscious male it’s my duty to investigate further. Saving the world will have to wait a little longer.