PgDn, PgDn, PgDn — why use the arrow keys, why creep through this tedious procession of posts?
Links, images, videos, lists, quotes, articles, news items, op-eds, hashtags, screencaps, clickbait, selfies, looping GIFs, emojis, memes. Nostalgia, outrage, silliness, boasting, self-pity, criticism, hypersensitivity, overreaction, callousness, taunting, indignation, self-righteousness, glibness, vilification, slurring, stereotyping, thought-policing. I Don’t Do This Anymore and Here’s Why, You’re Deluding Yourself If You Think Such-and-Such, Why Those People Are Dead Wrong, This Is the Most Outrageous / Adorable / Stupid Thing You’ll See Today, Take This Quiz and Find Out Something Utterly Pointless, You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next.
And hidden somewhere in all this, sandwiched between the ads and inanities, a few thoughtful reflections, one or two heartfelt emotions, a savvy critique, a plea for sanity and understanding. So rare, though, so elusive.
From day to day I’m stupefied to rediscover what insipid, self-serving, partisan, paranoid, mindless creatures my fellow human beings can be — what a lack they have of scruples, wisdom, and the love of truth! what lowly entertainments they pass the time with! how few are the notions they embrace for merit’s sake rather than self-comfort! how many deceits, illusions, and crackpot allegations they echo without a moment’s thought! how eager they are to join a fray! — and how lonely it makes them. Almost everything I encounter on social media looks like some kind of desperate soliloquy. Voices crying in a wilderness. Howling wolves.
My laptop never sleeps, even when I do. All night long its whir, low but audible, comes to me through the veil of an eight-hour YouTube video of steadily falling rain. I can’t fall asleep anymore without listening to rain or some other static — crickets, a bonfire, waves crashing on a beach. When at 3 or 4 a.m. I at last grow too weary or too headached to read or watch anything else, I browse to YouTube’s homepage, and waiting for me there, knowing exactly what I want, are four or five appealing options, ready-made ambiances. Playing a game before I go to bed is a grave error: I’ll dream about it. The little stick-figure of Lode Runner will crisscross the backs of my eyelids, dodging enemies and digging holes, or checkers will move around on a backgammon board.
Coffee in the morning, strong to keep me awake through all the hours I’ll spend sitting today. First up, after checking email of course, is the coterie of sites I visit daily: Facebook, Twitter (where I read but never post), NPR (for the news), The Writer’s Almanac (for a poem), then back around to YouTube for some music (classical and medieval chant is best) to hear while I write. Along the way, I can be — and frequently am — distracted or diverted from cycling completely through this morning ritual. I’ll start scrolling through my Facebook feed (where the PgDn key is my ally), or I’ll click a link and go down some rabbit hole. Facebook tends to pipe me towards politics, NPR towards Wikipedia (the deepest rabbit hole). And at the last juncture, if I’m not very mindful about what I’m there for, YouTube will entice me into an hours-long viewing spree, a binge.
Feed, binge — what apt words! At the end of each day I feel as if I’ve gorged myself past reason or reckoning. Anything that’s plentiful and gives pleasure is potentially addictive, and the human brain is an information sponge.
When I was a kid, too poor to have many toys but quite imaginative, I was eternally plagued by a feeling that the real world was uninspiring, monochromatic, barren. Reality didn’t intrigue me; fantasy did. I invented a private universe in which I was the embodiment of all mercies, the just king, the knight slaying dragons. And of course, living inside so much fantasy, I let myself assume the aspect and dimensions of a hero in every situation, neglecting to inspect and prune my own character, so that as I grew I lost nearly all capacity for seeing myself and my actions in a true light. I became a liar and a shiftless no-account, someone who couldn’t be depended on. And when my equivocations and irresponsibility caught up with me, I became a long-suffering victim, a martyr. This pattern of becoming a dissolute person is common among the rich and anyone else with too much power and leisure, but I didn’t have that excuse — I was a spoiled poor kid.
It has amazed me over the course of my adulthood to watch exactly the same process begin to unfold on a massive human scale. Immersed in digital worlds of which we are the center and within which our every word and deed vibrates with the force of self-made myth, we’re quickly losing our moorings, becoming untethered from reality and thus from our responsibilities to others.
Do you think I exaggerate? Recount to yourself every argument, every opinion, every denunciation you’ve come across in all the time you’ve been online — how many times have you witnessed someone admitting that they’re simply, unqualifiedly wrong? How many times have you done it yourself?
The Internet is forever. We all understand this thoroughly by now. We live in the light of this self-evident truth: anything and everything we do or say there will long outlive us. So can any of us afford ever to be proved wrong? With remarkably few exceptions, no.
Observe the behavior of the man we’ve elected to lead our country: he can’t bear to be criticized, so he surrounds himself with people and information — sources of news and opinion — which do not contradict him. Caught between the presidency, an office whose holder is perforce the most criticized person in the country, and the Twitter following that put him there, his obfuscations and denials grow ever more ludicrous and far-fetched. He’s not an anomaly. He is the torchbearer of a paradoxical consciousness which cannot tolerate its own fallibility. His struggle is ours; his absurd outbursts are no more than the reflection of our own refusal ever to look in a mirror.
Human beings are not numbers or binary code — zeros and ones fluttering around inside a CPU — or definitions in a dictionary. We lack the integrity of a scientific fact. We’re mistake-prone, we fall apart. A perfect and ceaseless infallibility is impossible. And yet that’s the bar to which we hold each other now, tranced by a machine that never forgets.
When and how will we wake up?