Though I’m old enough to remember a time before the Internet, I have spent the majority of my career in what some people still call the “digital space.” I’ve seen it go from dial-up modems to broadband and wi-fi. I’ve seen phones change from bulky Motorolas to Nokia candy bars to the iPhone 7.
And I’ve seen us get lost in it all.
Andrew Sullivan has, too. In fact, he willingly gave himself up to the Digital Age, starting one of the first major blogs, turning it into a profitable concern and staying determinedly plugged in, even when his health suffered and his mind sought to decompress.
He finally went on a retreat to recover. Among the first things he gave up was his phone.
Sullivan’s piece, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” speaks to the paradox of the Information Age. Never have so many people found it so easy to be electronically connected — and never have so many people found themselves humanly disconnected.
For all the benefits of online life — allowing people to realize that they’re not alone, regardless of their social or health status — we now spend many hours facing our screens but all too little time facing each other in person, or simply listening to the hum of the earth.
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. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. “Multitasking” was a mirage. This was a zero-sum question. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as a human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time.
Sullivan’s story, in the current New York magazine, is this week’s Sunday read.
Sullivan seems an extreme case. He writes about how he struggled to return to reading books. He’s caught by surprise when real emotion — a profound sadness — grips him on a nature walk. Me, I still subscribe to a number of paper magazines and spend a half-hour or so with a book before turning in. I know my neighbors and I see friends in person. And I have little problem taking a stroll without the accompaniment of a phone signal. (Though I do carry my phone — you never know if someone will need you.)
But I understand what he means. I used to groan in the evenings, working myself through dozens of pointless company emails well after I’d gone home. I cheered when a friend of mine went to rural Maine and posted that he’d be off the grid for a few days. I itch while driving, wondering if anyone’s responded to a Facebook post.
And I’m not a digital native. Will new generations make time for human vulnerability or simply stay attached to their screens? It’s a question that’s come up before, and it’s one we’re still struggling to answer.
You can check out Sullivan’s story here.