The abominable heap

A couple years ago, I read a review of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, a science fiction novel. The author of the review was a recent college grad with staggering self-awareness and a disheartening but realistic sense of dismay with modern tech addiction. She was exactly the person to comment on a dystopian futuristic novel, in which social media, among other modern social ills, have taken over everything. In her 20s, she was umbilically attached to an iPhone, got paid to write on the Internet, and was surrounded by friends who did the same.

I read her review, entitled “Sad as Hell,” and immediately I read it again. Then I read it again and again. And then I finally shared it with friends. Now, I have it bookmarked and I still read it periodically. And here’s the catch: I’ve never gotten around to reading the underlying novel.

For me, the fixation on that particular piece has something to do with the way she blames the Internet, but also avoids blaming it, for the sense of isolation I get when I’m sitting at the gate before a flight and no one is talking. Or that sadness I feel when I step on the elevator and my neighbor ignores me, pretending to be absorbed in something important on the screen of his iPhone. It’s not my isolation that worries me; it’s his.

I’m comfortable with my own ways of insulating myself from humanity when I choose to do so; I’ve lived with those tricks my whole life and I know them well. They are no longer a threat. But when I see other people doing the same thing I do at my lowest times, it saddens me, deeply, for all of us. Where are we going with all of this? What are we doing to our brains? Can we still say that we’re evolving, or is it only technology that is evolving now?

I don’t think I could write a detailed script of how we got to this place where we hide from each other all the time, but call it “staying connected;” I was too young when it all began and I wasn’t paying attention. But I think I could summarize the important points that have happened since I became an adult. The short version, as I see it, is that when social platforms first came around, we were drawn to them because we liked the idea of feeling more involved in the lives of everyone around us. Then we discovered that artificial, shallow connection is sometimes good enough to scratch the itch for human interaction, and a whole lot easier. It’s like stopping for fast food on the way home, because you tell yourself you’re too tired to cook. You know it will taste terrible and you’ll regret it in the morning, but it will hold you over.

So it is with looking at the wedding pictures of your cousin’s friend, a person you maybe met once, someone you may never see again. It stirs up some feelings of warmth and then you turn off the screen and go to bed, feeling like you know what’s going on in your interpersonal world. But in the morning, you wake up feeling guilty for having spent 3 hours on Facebook, and you realize that no, you never actually met that bride. How odd it is that you know all about some stranger’s wedding now.

Then there’s the way we all stop thinking and carry our phones around, knowing we can always look up whatever we need. I’ve lived in this city for 2 years and still have to use my GPS to get to my favorite deli, unless I take the familiar route from my office. I can’t be bothered to think about where it’s located in terms of cardinal directions. Maybe we isolate because we’re embarrassed of how stupid we’re becoming.

I started writing a blog as a personal exercise, just for me. I spend no more than an hour writing a new post, and I publish immediately. I do this on purpose, as a means of waging small battles with my perfectionism. But I keep thinking about what it means to be contributing to the abominable heap of porn and cat videos, this thing we call the web. It’s a poorly maintained landfill, steaming with smut and ill-informed opinions. And here I go, tossing my garbage onto the heap, not even bothering to sort out the recyclables or to compost the good stuff. I guess this is my contribution to making humanity a little bit dumber.

And it’s losing track of this distinction—between reading and seeing—that’s so shameful. It’s like being demoted from the category of thinking, caring human to a sort of rat that doesn’t know why he needs to tap that button, just that he does. I deleted Twitter and Tumblr off my phone about a month ago. For a few weeks, I felt empowered, proactive, “refreshed.” But addicts are sneaky! Soon I was circumnavigating my own artificial restrictions, checking via Safari.

–“Sad as Hell,” N+1 Magazine, July 2010

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