Andrew Sullivan on Tech Addiction, Constant Distraction, & Silence

The title of Andrew Sullivan’s long essay at New York Magazine on the effects of the digital culture on our humanity is perfect: I Used to Be a Human Being. The subtitle is no less poignant:

An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.

It’s the kind of writing that you need to set aside time for. I wondered, as I passed what must have been the 5,000 word mark and kept scrolling, if he wrote it offline. Sullivan is, of course, at the same time a gifted writer and a strangely reluctant Christian. He speaks in this essay multiple times about the importance of liturgy, monasticism, the regularity of the Mass — but also drops in a reminder that he has a “husband,” and talks approvingly of the drug-fueled excesses of Burning Man, or our culture’s rapidly-growing acceptance of marijuana.

But amidst the grasping for answers to what we’ve done (and are doing) to ourselves in a world of constant distraction, Sullivan makes some truly important observations, many of which hit home:

A year before, like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming. 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. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

I felt, reading that, as though he’d been watching me through a hidden camera. I tell people all the time, “I’m a professional; there’s no such thing as ‘writer’s block’ in my world.” There isn’t. The content is always there, waiting to be put together. As a publisher, you are the bottleneck. You are the reason the story that needs to be heard isn’t being told, the article isn’t being edited, the insight that needs to be shared isn’t being shared.

Even now, writing about this, I started by just going to link to it on my Facebook page. Then I thought, “No, this is too good. This needs more than a quick share. This is low-hanging fruit. This demands commentary.” And here I am, instead of on the way to the grocery store before I go pick up my kids from school.

Sullivan talks about how manic the pace became; how the instant-feedback of the Internet hits the dopamine button in the affirmation deprived brain of every writer. He also talks about the toll this pace of life took on his health over the years, and how this became a serious concern.

I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard. I tried meditation, but my mind bucked and bridled as I tried to still it. I got a steady workout routine, and it gave me the only relief I could measure for an hour or so a day. But over time in this pervasive virtual world, the online clamor grew louder and louder. Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise. So much of it was irresistible, as I fully understood. So much of the technology was irreversible, as I also knew. But I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.

By the last few months, 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. 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.

And so I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.

Sound familiar? Do you ever force yourself, with notable physical effort, to put away whatever screen is demanding your attention and just see the world around you? If you’ve never done it, it can be jarring. I’ve actually scolded myself out loud, “Stop it!” I’ll yell, as I catch myself grabbing the phone while bored with driving. “It’s not worth it!”

[A]s 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.

Think of how rarely you now use the phone to speak to someone. A text is far easier, quicker, less burdensome. A phone call could take longer; it could force you to encounter that person’s idiosyncrasies or digressions or unexpected emotional needs. Remember when you left voice-mail messages — or actually listened to one? Emojis now suffice. Or take the difference between trying to seduce someone at a bar and flipping through Tinder profiles to find a better match. One is deeply inefficient and requires spending (possibly wasting) considerable time; the other turns dozens and dozens of humans into clothes on an endlessly extending rack.

No wonder we prefer the apps. An entire universe of intimate responses is flattened to a single, distant swipe. We hide our vulnerabilities, airbrushing our flaws and quirks; we project our fantasies onto the images before us.

I recently found myself in a situation where I was waiting with my seven-year-old son as he transitioned to a new classroom. He was nervous about the change, but not outwardly showing much. We sat together on the steps outside as we waited to be brought to meet his teacher, and as I always do when I’m waiting for something, I pulled out my phone and started looking through all the notifications. After a minute or so, it dawned on me: here I am with this boy whom I love, who is facing something that is unnerving, and possibly even scary. And I’m distracted, giving the sort of delayed responses one gives when “multitasking”. 

I shoved the phone deep into my pocket and put my arm around him. We talked. I held him. He clung onto my arm. I built him up, and told him I’d take him out for a treat if he could just take it on with a good attitude and an open mind. We acted like human beings. Like a father and son. And it was fantastic.

And I have been missing out on this for years, because I’m an idiot.

Fascinatingly, he lays the blame for much of the constant-distraction fetish of the West on the Protestant Reformation:

The English Reformation began, one recalls, with an assault on the monasteries, and what silence the Protestants didn’t banish the philosophers of the Enlightenment mocked. Gibbon and Voltaire defined the Enlightenment’s posture toward the monkish: from condescension to outright contempt. The roar and disruption of the Industrial Revolution violated what quiet still remained until modern capitalism made business central to our culture and the ever-more efficient meeting of needs and wants our primary collective goal. We became a civilization of getting things done — with the development of America, in some ways, as its crowning achievement. Silence in modernity became, over the centuries, an anachronism, even a symbol of the useless superstitions we had left behind. The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.

Sullivan makes an interesting observation, too, about churches that compete for the attention of potential congregants by offering more noise and sound:

If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.

He’s wrong, of course – it’s not an either or proposition. It’s distraction and hedonism, and they go hand in hand, as he notes more than once in our collective desire for pornography — a thing he appears to see as a positive. But I’ll give him credit for the numinous impulse on display here; as is often the case with a Catholic writer formed by his Christianity but unwilling to abide by it, Sullivan sees the value, at least, in the external forms of traditional manifestations of our faith, if not clearly in the underlying principles that shape them.

The whole piece is a great deal longer than what I’ve excerpted here. It merits, in my opinion, a full reading, despite its length and imperfections. We could all use a great deal more self-reflection on this topic. This is an unexpected, but worthwhile place to start.


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