“The less hot air you make and the more tangible you are, the better chance you have at this moment.” – John Berger
I had the unlooked-for opportunity in December to spend three weeks with virtually no exposure to the Internet, due to a family illness. During that time I looked at Facebook once or twice, briefly. Same for the news. I did not respond to many emails.
Obviously, nothing clears one’s head of trivialities like contemplating the mortality of a loved one. Death is the ultimate bullshit detector. But add to that the lack of mental clutter that comes with staying off the Internet, and your third eye gets squeegeed clean in a hurry. What struck me as I emerged from the bubble of crisis (everyone is fine, thankfully) was this: I feel calmer, happier, and more clear-headed than I’ve felt in months, maybe even years. One colleague, a cancer survivor, described this as my “fiercely earned silver lining.”
When you are forced by circumstances such that you simply cannot engage in the Sisyphean ordeal of email, or the daily hysteria over current events, or even pause to consider whether you should click on the words “32 Celebrities Struggle to Describe the Color of Donald Trump’s Hair”—when all of that is excised from your experience, it’s remarkable what happens to your brain.
Clearly, the Internet is making us crazy. Its constant buckshot of juiced trivialities has eroded our ability to distinguish that which is important from that which is not. Just as we’re so burdened with useless material junk that we need self-help books on how to keep the objects that matter and throw the rest away, our minds on the Internet have become infinitely receding vistas stuffed with spinning hamster wheels. If we stop to think about it, we can tell the difference from good and bad information, just as we can tell the difference between good and bad merchandise. But we don’t stop to think. We just click, and fritter away time, and fill our precious gray matter with the President-Elect’s tweet to Meryl Streep after the Golden Globes. (Spoiler alert: you don’t need to know.)
So log off.
No, obviously, I’m not suggesting we don’t use the Internet at all. We can’t stick our heads in the sand. We need to pay attention to civic and global affairs. We need to read good writing, and a lot of it is on the web. But, having tasted life with little online stimulation, I realize I must put an end to the foie gras force-feeding of seemingly urgent news that’s actually not that urgent, and start using the Internet as the resource that its architects envisioned: as the ultimate library. Practically speaking? I’ve come up with some do’s and don’ts to keep my Internet usage clean, purposeful, and minimal. I’ve turned off all push notifications, because I don’t need real-time updates on who’s liked an Instagram post. I’m responding to texts and emails when it’s convenient, not when they arrive. I’m going to resist the urge to pull out my phone when stopped in traffic, or in an elevator, or waiting in a line. (There’s other stuff, but I wouldn’t want to turn this into a listicle.)
Is this a futile exercise against the inexorable continental drift of human evolution towards technology? Perhaps. But to me, this is a fight for everything that makes life worth living.
This week on Glasstire the artist and writer Michael Bise talked about how going to the dog park keeps him in touch with people, and it’s just those common, trivial interactions that are so important: for every horribly racist episode you read about online, there are thousands of moments every day, all over this country, when people of various ethnicities and ages and genders hold the door open for each other courteously and say “good morning.” It’s important to keep that in mind, and it’s difficult to do so when you spend hours a day on Facebook.
Walking around a hospital and interacting with the kindly staff and stressed visitors, I realized I crave these brief interactions just as I do ones with friends and colleagues. And it’s not just my line of work: any of us can easily hunker down in front of a computer and spend the whole day there. But my line of work has to do with art and artists, and discovery. And the hoary old art world truism is true: you have to look at it in person. You can’t look at art in a book, or online, and develop any real understanding of what it’s about.
So the second half of my New Year’s resolution, the “more people” side, has to do with stepping out of the bounds of our insular little bubble of an art world and looking for things in unexpected places, made by unexpected people. We all got attracted to this because there’s something smart and incisive about good art, and the people who make it. We like being around those people (mostly). I want to share breathing space with interesting things I haven’t seen before, things that tell me something about this world we live in. And I want to share breathing space with the interesting people who make them.
I opened this piece with a quotation from the critic John Berger, who died recently. Here is another one: “Reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held — I am tempted to say salvaged.” Berger’s 1972 BBC series Ways of Seeing is a good way to start salvaging this year. You can watch it on the Internet. Smiley face.