#022 — What Do You Think Dujour?
Hi, hello, how are you? It’s me, Adam Wood, writing to you one last time for this calendar year. Normally I would probably be telling you about my experience getting a flu vaccine, or the boba I just had, or — you know — chess drama™. But, since this is our last dance, I wanted to take a run at explaining why, as best as I’m able.
77% of people aged 18 to 24 responded “yes” when asked, “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,” compared with only 10% of those over the age of 65
I. From A Certain Point Of View
I was born in 1981, which puts me squarely in a micro-generation sometimes labelled ‘Xennials’. We have all the sarcastic irony and anti-corporate cynicism of Gen X, packaged up next to some of the squishier emotionality of Millennials. (But just the good parts of each.) But the key, defining characteristic of a Xennial, is that they had a pre-internet childhood, and then watched the advent of the social web (and later, social media) happen during their adulthood.
This quirk of demographics colours my relationship with technology — and with the social internet in particular — in a thousand small ways, and on a daily basis. Mine was the last generation to grow up in a world without the internet; that is something from which there is no going back. I see it as both a blessing and a curse: a tension that is at the core of my competing feelings of both delight and revulsion towards the modern web.
The way I think of it, engagement with the modern internet is akin to allowing the cog of your mind to marry its teeth with those of another that never stops spinning. Picture it: the internet as a huge, whirring cog — its zillions of little teeth zipping past at great speed. And now picture that other, smaller cog: the one that represents your mind, and everything that goes along with it: your emotions, your attention etc.
Logging on, signing in, scrolling, liking, the ping of notifications, badges bearing numbers affixed to app icons, re-opening an app I only just closed — all of that is the pull of the big cog spinning, and tugging my mind along with it. And the thing is, it doesn’t hurt to marry the cog of your mind to the greater cog of the web. We do it voluntarily, and repeatedly, because we get something from it. As the cog of the mind is turned, it spins up the adrenal gland to do its work, and the hypothalamus, to produce a thousand little squirts of dopamine. It can be enjoyable to have your works activated like this — surely it’s better than the alternative: to pull back from the giddy momentum of the great, turning wheel. That way lies boredom, the much-feared dragon of our age.
And so the huge internet cog spins endlessly, driven by the momentum of the uncountable smaller cogs belonging to its every user: individuals, corporations, bots, advertisers, data-harvesters. I might lean my mind forward with the intention of contributing a little input to the whole — the slightest impulse of momentum. But, in doing so, I’m met with billions of other minds and wills, all doing the same thing: feeding the whirr, the dizzying spin. It’s not a fair fight. Any single human mind is outmatched by the architecture of the modern internet, because it has been built and tuned precisely to ensure that we repeatedly subject ourselves to its perpetual motion. Why wouldn’t we engage with a machine built to stimulate, and which requires so little effort from us in return? Lean forward your minds one and all; don’t let a good limbic system go to waste.
We’ve become so accustomed to it, that we’ve forgotten how recently things were different. But in the background, pervasive to the point that we’ve largely tuned it out, it’s possible to hear the whirring teeth. When I open a social media app for the sixth time in a day, or click through a cookie pop-up, or scroll past another promoted post, or watch the countdown until I can skip a mid-video advert, I can hear the teeth whirring.
III. Hangin’ With The Dragon
It’s become my custom to take an extended season away from the internet. Not 24 hours, or a week, but multiple months in which my default switches to disengagement. I’ve found that, for me, it has to work this way. Pulling my mind away from the web still leaves it turning with inherited momentum for a good long while. There are certainly short-term effects — a palpable difference when the mind is not being ceaselessly pulled upon. But it will be several weeks before the accumulated impetus dies away, and the springs finally loosen. It’s at this point that my mind is returned to something like its natural state, running at a speed tuned by millions of years of evolution, instead of dozens of years of technological innovation.
So, as soon as the final game is played in the Chicago Cubs’ season (this year, 5 Oct), I begin flicking the switches. Through autumn and winter it’s not quite as though I’ll point-blank refuse to watch a YouTube video — strident monasticism has its own pitfalls — but accounts will be silenced, apps deleted, subscriptions suspended. I’ll do what I can to make my phone a worse option for filling any otherwise-unoccupied moment. In my experience, when you dim the lights like this, and your eyes get accustomed to the dark, you find that the dragon’s cave is not a scary place to be. In fact, that dragon boredom is hoarding some very fine things.
One of the measures of the slowing mind cog is the ability to read 20 pages of a novel without reaching for one’s phone. (“I’m just looking up this place name” I tell myself, before scrolling Twitter for 15 minutes.) Then, before long, 40 pages, 50, 100?! I plan to get a lot of reading done over the autumn & winter. But it’s not as simple as just freeing up some time, and stretching an atrophied attention span. There’s a more important element for me: an effort at recognising the deeper effects of extended, daily engagement with the internet. As Jia Tolentino puts it in her essay ’The I in the Internet’1:
The internet is governed by incentives that make it impossible to be a full person while interacting with it.
As such, it is incumbent upon us to make what she calls:
small attempts to retain our humanity, to act on a model of actual selfhood, one that embraces culpability, inconsistency, and insignificance.
That’s where this strange practice of mine stems from. An (admittedly (increasingly) futile) effort to recapture something of the way the world felt before the great cog started turning.
IV. Goodbye For Now
The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.
— John Ruskin
I have enjoyed sending these to you over the last few months. One of the reasons that I’ve been writing on the internet for more than 20 years, is that I still find the medium magical. It may not sound like it from the above, but I value that great boon of the internet: the sharing of human experience. Centralised, homogenised, and commercialised as it has become, more work is now required to seek out that treasure, but it is most-assuredly still there. For my part as a contributor, I try to proceed from an intention to simply ‘tell what I saw in a plain way’. As Ruskin notes, however, talking should be preceded by thinking, and thinking should be informed by seeing.So, I’ll step away from the web for a while, to slow down and cultivate perspective; if past precedent holds true I’m going to enjoy it enormously.
If you follow me elsewhere online, please note that during the period of my offline hibernation, posts, pages, podcasts, and even entire websites will be subject to interruptions and disappearances. One thing I can almost promise is that my annual end-of-year favourite albums list will appear somewhere online in the first week of 2023. Keep an eye out for that if you’d like to know which albums gave me the most joy this year.
Thank you once again for spending some of your time & attention on reading these newsletters over the last 22 weeks. I don’t take it for granted; it’s very much appreciated. I wish each of you nothing but the best for autumn and winter, and I hope to write to you again in spring.
Tolentino, Jia. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. Random House, 2019. ↩︎