There’s a lot of stuff on the internet. But every now and then, I’ll come across something that just flat stops me in my tracks.
That happened to me recently with Andrew Sullivan’s New York Magazine article “I Used to Be a Human Being.” The piece’s subtitle spells out Sullivan’s subject matter: “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.”
Sullivan was one of the internet’s most prolific and well-known bloggers and information curators as the nascent medium exploded. Early in his article, he says of himself, “For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. … I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web.”
But after 15 years cranking out content as fast as humanly possible, Sullivan’s health began to deteriorate. In fact, he felt a crash was imminent. He also realized that his passion for the internet’s never-ending stream of information had morphed into something more ominous: addiction to it. He writes,
I realized I had been engaging—like most addicts—in a form of denial. I’d long treated my online life as a supplement to my real life, an add-on, as it were. Yes, I spent many hours communicating with others as a disembodied voice, but my real life and body were still here. But then I began to realize, as my health and happiness deteriorated, that this was not a both-and kind of situation. It was either-or. Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter.”
Eventually, he decided that he needed to detach from the way of life he’d been living, and to deal with how compulsive and destructive his own internet addiction had become.
As I made my way through Sullivan’s article, I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what he wrote. He talks about his struggle to pay attention long enough to read a book. The compulsion to stay on top of it all. The seduction of wondering if the vast audience of anonymous surfers out there were engaging—and more importantly, liking—what you’ve produced. And the sense of deep, life-sapping fatigue that goes hand-in-hand with a lifestyle that he adopted early, and one that many of us have since adopted, too.
“Not long ago,” he observes, “surfing the web, however addictive, was a stationary activity. At your desk at work, or at home on your laptop, you disappeared down a rabbit hole of links and resurfaced minutes (or hours) later to reencounter the world. But the smartphone then went and made the rabbit hole portable, inviting us to get lost in it anywhere, at any time, whatever else we might be doing. Information soon penetrated every waking moment of our lives.”
Down the portable rabbit hole. That sums it up quite well.
Many cultural observers, of course, are sounding the warning about what the internet—combined with smartphone technology—is doing to our lives, our brains and our relationships. What Sullivan (who’s a gay and a practicing Roman Catholic) does next in his article, however, is interesting. He suggests that cultivating a spiritual life depends enormously upon silence and meditation—two of the immediate-but-quiet casualties of the information revolution:
[The] 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—as a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries—only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. 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.
This changes us. It slowly removes—without our even noticing it—the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them.
I think Andrew Sullivan is right regarding his diagnosis of the dangers of our always-on lifestyles. It may sound like hyperbole, but the fact of the matter is this: For many of us, being almost perpetually intertwined with the internet has become a way of life that we don’t even think about much anymore. It’s just the way we live, and we may not even realize the cost of that way of life.
Sullivan’s thoughts here challenge me to consider whether this way of life is actually good way of living. He suggests it is not. And he reminds us that the antidote to being “manic information addicts” is to deliberately, intentionally choose to turn off our omnipresent devices and to be quiet—with ourselves and with God.