The Internet Is Beating the Crap Out of Us
We asked for it
I recently read this piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the New Yorker:
It’s basically a response to an essay written by Jonathan Heidt a few months ago in the Atlantic titled Why the Past Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid. (Answer: social media.) Kraus sites complex research into the question(s) or whether or not social media creates opinion echo chambers, makes misinformation more potent, makes people more polarized, more angry and therefore more violent. The results were mixed and the piece basically concludes: “Maybe! But more research is needed.” (Jonathan Heidt shouts in the background: People are going nuts! We don’t have time!)
I haven’t experienced enough social media to have an opinion. My reservation about the internet, which for most people features social media in a big way, is simpler: its beating the shit out of our nervous systems. Its de-physicalizing us. I think this started happening before the internet, I just didn’t notice it.
I am thinking of a writer named Neil Postman who in 1985 published a prescient book called Amusing Ourselves to Death; it was about the effects of television on everything, especially politics. I remember listening to an interview with him in maybe 1991 during a moment of pundit panic about whether or not violent movies, TV shows and songs were making young people crazy. I don’t remember everything he said, but what stuck with me is this, that he thought violent imagery was less the problem than the way it was conveyed. He thought the accelerated speed and rapid mixing of disparate images and subjects was goosing people’s nervous systems, making them incrementally more hyper regardless of the content of the images/subjects.
He spoke about how in the early years of television, there were two commercial breaks during an hour showing a limited number of commercials each one running a sedate sixty seconds; by the early 90s the situation had metastasized to something like four breaks jammed with maybe five commercials at fifteen to thirty seconds apiece. The pace of the actual shows followed the suit, so that the eye never rests, nor do the emotions, and the mind takes in more than it can fully process. He thought that when you put violent subject matter on top of that, yes, it could influence people psychically (my language, not his). He talked about things other than television that were feeding the trend, for example increasingly high-speed travel, opining that we were evolving technologically faster than our bodies were equipped to handle.
Thirty years later our nervous systems are not just goosed they are shredded. I feel like I should create some kind of super-charged word imagery to illustrate that statement but this is one of the few times I think why? You all know what I mean, especially if you are a writer or anyone who spends any time on a computer getting ads flashed at you all day about fully emptying your bowels or increasing your virility or half-price boots or bras or blood pressure drugs or expressing your support for Donald Trump/Joe Biden, answering emails or tweets while working on deadline, taking a break for an animal video or music video or porn video or fake porn pics of AOC or a meme of the aged Hillary Clinton being knocked down or a horrible murder video before back to whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. Its like Postman said, its not only the content, its the way it comes at you from all directions and lives (spatially) in the same place as your actual life.
You could say that this collective shadow chaos is an inevitable reflection of what is happening in the physical world, what has always happened. You could say that even the most scabrous sites, videos and memes are nothing compared to the vast, historical actual violence of this country, the lynchings, witch burnings, police murders and mass shootings. You could say that they perhaps siphon off some of the actual violence by expressing it in the evaporative virtual realm. You could definitely say that viral postings online and other forums allow the usual victims of real-life cruelty to strike back, for example like what was done by the hive mind on behalf of an African-American bird watcher in a potentially dangerous standoff with a vicious white woman who over-estimated herself. You even could say that its sometimes fun, ecstatic even, to have your nervous system jerked around, to have horrible things made floridly quotidian and funny.
Fun, fuck yeah.
Except horrible things that are fun make you sick. And there’s that delivery system issue again. Example: Internet porn. I never had a problem with porn, I don’t think it’s innately degrading or turns people into rapists. But a hundred years ago, when you had to leave your house to look at porn, go to some skeevy store on a skeevy block and lurk under the baleful eye of the weird guy at the register, or sit in an odorous theater next to somebody you hope won’t talk to you—that’s a literal journey, a place very different from you at home, staring at your device. Out in the world, you have to cop to what you’re doing, in front of people, and there might be at least some consequence, even if its just a conversation you don’t want to have. Porn any time, any day on your computer, the same portal through which you go to work, to school, talk to your family—that’s a different experience in which the psyche’s relationship with itself and with the outside world gets very fluid and strange, with boundary creep. For all I know somebody was watching porn in my writing class when I was teaching on zoom last year. Why not? Why were people so outraged that Jeffery Toobin, formerly of the New Yorker, was caught masturbating on a professional zoom call? Probably it happens a lot. Have I ever done it? Nope! But given what it is right now, I don’t know why people would be shocked that someone did.
Funny: right before I became fully aware of the internet, in 1992, I wrote in my journal that I felt oppressed by the heaviness of bodies, the limited nature of biological identity, and the slowness of corporeality—idly, I wished for connection between people that was fast as electricity, fluid as emotion, as total as sex. I was not alone! As out of it as I am, I was tuned in more than I imagined at that moment! Apparently that’s what a lot of people wanted and want still, in a yet more perfect, faster and disembodied form.
Forward into the past!