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First off, this hypocrisy: publishing a piece on the Internet that decries the Internet. No allowance for it. It is straight-up hypocrisy. Best to shut up, crawl back in my cave, ass in hand, and utter not another word. Yet, and yet. For the thousand and thousand years that print and, later, books offered their plague and joy in our civilization, the same cries were raised. Much later, when vinyl went to 8-track, which went to cassette, which went to CD, ad nauseam, oh the crying – need we belabor it? When CDs first came out, my buddy Davide Gentile, musician extraordinaire, warned that the technology excised, like a surgeon from above, the lows and the highs of sound. It was a less true sound than vinyl; the secret noises, hidden to the ear but felt in the heart, were cut from the equation. The representation of the music had become more so. I accepted it with a shrug.
Years later, I want out. The totalizing force of digital, the unremitting, unrepentant, capturing completeness of machine access of everywhere, every time: It is something qualitatively different. Like the dead sound of the CD, we are hearing more efficiently and hearing less. We are told information has greater clarity, but all I hear is noise. Information becomes paramount in its immediacy. Yet it is whim answered without wisdom. The gesticulation of e-mails, the hysterical immediate response (required always), the distraction, the false concern, the need at every remove to satisfy the blasting of noise with more noise, talking louder against the silence in the inbox; the flashing, the flipping of the pages, the dancing of the links, the light, the buzzing, the newness, the news, the latest, the flash, the crash. How often, poor fool, do you awake and check e-mail before you stretch your arms and look at the sun? How is the addict with his drink or syringe different than you?
The computer and its connection to the mass mind is but a tool, an appropriate technology if properly used. But it is not properly used. It dominates, so that the user is the used, and the user, like the addict, weakens at every return.
An experiment of the last few years: I go to a cabin in Utah where there is no Internet, no telephone line, no cellphone signal. What happens with only the wretched self and the empty page? The attention span accords with the desert sky, wide and widening, and there is a gigantic increase in productivity. Thousands of words – good words, worth keeping – are written in a few days of deep concentration where it would have taken weeks to produce the same amount exposed to the fool’s continuum of constant access to the hive mind and the blinking screen. I write, I balk, I walk out in the cold night, I climb the hills beyond the cabin, get lost in the dirt of the desert, swing somehow home to the sound of the coyotes calling. In town, when I get a cell phone signal, a friend tells me there’s a presidential election, and of course I know there’s nothing so irrelevant as the election of one slut or the other for the boudoir of office. I know there are more important things than the news.
Nicholas Carr wrote a great book, a beautiful book, that diagnoses the situation of modern man crushed under the totality of digital access. He called his book “The Shallows.” His main contention is commonsense and hardly to be argued with: As we engage more and more with the flitting of the Internet’s slipstream, it rewires our minds to be less than we are capable of, less than we imagined, less we hoped for – it is stupefying and stupidifying. We leap from one small object to another, like children chasing bubbles. We click on the links. We click and clack and turn and toss in an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” We become less able to think deeply, to encompass ambiguities, nuances, to hold with a single thought and parse it out. We are searching, skimming; the machine we employ looks for keywords, with the highest efficiency, and with this efficiency our ideas become cheap, evanescent, easily swayed, easily swept away. Subordinated thus, there is no meditative life. It can’t cohere, it can’t go deep. When the iPhone intrudes every 3 seconds, it is a reminder of the shallows. When the person across from you answers like the dutiful robot, remember those places in your heart in the wild and ancient desert.
Christopher Ketcham writes for Harper’s, the American Prospect, Orion, and many other magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org