Andrew Sullivan’s latest essay in New York Magazine is one of the essential pieces of reading I’ve come across so far this year. Partly, I suppose, because it is the essay that I’ve been trying and failing to write for the past year. The title according to the URL slug of the article is “How Technology Almost Killed Me,” and the headline chosen by the magazine to appear in social media shares is “My Distraction Sickness–And Yours.” But the headline I personally love is the one that appears directly on the page:
“I Used To Be a Human Being.”
This is the essence of Sullivan’s essay. What if our endlessly connected lives, empowered by mobile technology and sustained by an ever-demanding social media age, are actually making us less like the people we are created to be?
As Sullivan reminds us, he spent more than a decade professional enmeshed in the online world. At its height, Andrew’s blog was updated at least a dozen times per day, often with nothing more than links and summaries of what he and his team found around the web. It was lucrative business, but it came at a cost. Sullivan’s physical, mental, and emotional health eventually spiraled downward, culminating in his announcement two years ago that he was leaving the blogosphere for good.
All that to say: When a man whose online presence has earned him money and reputation tells you that digital addiction is a major threat, you should probably listen.
Here’s an excerpt, but I cannot urge you enough to read the entire piece:
…as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.
By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.
And what a constant diet of “shadows” does is spread our emotions and attention so thin over our lives that we lose the ability to connect deeply with the biggest moments, the most fundamental truths, and the most important relationships. Everything becomes digitized so that life itself is defined down. We are never fully here because we are never fully anywhere; our thoughts are continually spliced up between the earth and the ether.
I’ve seen this play out in my own life. My iPhone offers the security and comfort of never having a bored moment. Twitter means I’m never more than 140 characters away from letting peers know I still matter (virtue-signaling, anyone?). The constant, agonizing pull to grab my phone in any moment of stillness or quietude is a daily experience. The temptation to keep checking notifications or blog stats, sometimes doing nothing more than refreshing the page or switching between tabs for an hour, is a daily experience.
And I’ve felt the consequences: Reading is harder for me because I can only go a few pages without needing something newly stimulating, and writing is even worse. I’ve found it more difficult than ever to meditate on Scripture for more than a couple minutes, or to immerse in focused prayer. Several times over the past year I’ve come home and told Emily that, despite my “output,” I still feel like the day has been wasted–or rather, that the day has evaporated like steam, while my back was turned for a few minutes.
Should I dismiss this struggle as an unavoidable feature of life in the information economy? Should I chalk up my hitting the wall in prayer and meditation to a lack of spiritual delight? It’s possible, of course. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more likely that while many evangelicals have been running around proclaiming that technology is morally neutral–“it’s just how you use it”–the “neutral” technology has been shaping me and many others in ways that make it harder to pursue faithfulness.
One last thought: I’ve been seeing many people respond to Sullivan’s essay with frustration that he doesn’t seem aware of how closely tied many people’s jobs are with online connectivity. Some have criticized the piece for idealizing a sort of seamless transition from online life to disconnected solitude, when an increasing number of people in Western culture pay their bills through jobs centered around the internet.
As someone who has one of those jobs, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this critique. It’s true that many people have careers that wouldn’t tolerate a total retreat to online monkishness. I haven’t the foggiest idea how that truth is somehow incompatible with Sullivan’s warning sign. For every person who is online 24/7 to support themselves or their families, there are at least 50 others who are online that much and have no idea why. If you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without endangering yourself or loved ones, God has grace for your situation. If, on the other hand, you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without exposing yourself to the frictions and foibles of flesh-and-blood reality, let me encourage you: I think it’s worth it.