Sometime in the 1990s, most of my friends and I got rid of our TVs. This was how you could tell who the interesting, literate people were. If you went to a party where people were talking about whatever was on last night, you knew to make an excuse to go get another drink and find someone else to talk to. Writers could use this as a kind of shorthand: You knew that young Leslie Burke in Bridge to Terabithia and Clarisse McClellan in Fahrenheit 451 came from families of intellectual freethinkers because they didn’t have TVs at home. The subversive cinema made by the first generation of television’s children — Blue Velvet, Brazil, Repo Man, Videodrome — made TV viewing look about as cool as a lobotomy, something old folks enshrouded on couches did to euthanize their brains.
But then, only a few years later, everybody was online. And people are far more uncritical of the internet than they ever were of TV. Everyone laments it, but no one doesn’t have it. The internet is now as ubiquitous as TV ever was and as indispensable as the telephone: You need it for work and for news; to make plans and get invitations, directions, and dates; to listen to music and watch TV or movies; to look at cat memes and porn. Not having Wi-Fi in your home is more unthinkable than not owning a TV ever was: It makes you not just a pretentious Luddite, but a bad host, like expecting your guests to use an outhouse. The newest-model phone is breaking news, and having an obsolete one can get you made fun of. It’s like the unprovoked jeering that vegans have to endure from carnivores, or the reflexive snarls you provoke among gun owners or other addicts if you suggest that the thing they’re dependent on might possibly have some bad side effects.
I can already hear younger readers mocking my old-guy technophobia. Every generation suffers a sort of Stockholm syndrome toward their own era, reflexively defending the conditions that formed them, no matter how they may have disfigured them. My own cohort, Gen X, straddled the creation of the internet; I didn’t get an email account until I was in my mid-thirties. (I’m a “late adopter,” the marketing pejorative for insufficiently credulous consumers.) I’m grateful to have come of age offline, because even if I’m now as assimilated as everyone else, I still recognize the internet for what it is: a luxury, a convenience. Although, like any addictive substance, it’s made itself a toxic necessity.
Early in TV’s history, people fantasized about the revolutionary force this new medium would be: a transformative educational tool, uniting disparate peoples around the world into a “global village.” Cut to The Dukes of Hazzard, televangelists, and Dr. Pimple Popper. Only a few years ago, you still heard the same sort of naively utopian delusions about the internet: It represented a revolution in human consciousness; it would be the great democratizer, connecting everyone.
A quarter-century in, it does seem to have revolutionized consciousness, in much the same way as did nickel slots or crack. Studies have empirically confirmed what’s anecdotally self-evident: The internet affects the same parts of the brain as alcoholism or gambling. It’s hard to believe that TV was so addictive in the days before cable, since there was nothing good on for about 40 years, but, speaking as a former child who grew up in that dismal interim, watching 800,000 hours of crap like The Laff-a-Lympics, What’s Happening!!, and Match Game ’76, I can testify to the addictive power of just three networks and one UHF channel.
Even though the internet offers the promise of limitless choices and infinite agency, anyone who’s lost hours refreshing the same few websites over and over, like a captive animal retracing the same neurotic path in its cage, knows it can be just as tiny and entrapping as three networks and one UHF channel. And anyone who’s ever gone cold turkey from their laptop or smartphone for even a weekend knows the alarmingly antsy feeling you get when you’re first away from it, helplessly out of contact. It’s increasingly common knowledge that the purveyors of this technology don’t let their own kids near the stuff. Consumers are starting to demand that smartphone manufacturers include apps that will prevent us from wasting our lives with their products.
Just as Ronald Reagan was the product of television, Donald Trump is an adaptive mutation of the internet: preening and sneering, speaking in tweets, utterly un-fact-checked, a political troll.
Slang like “idiot box” and “boob tube” at least expressed some anxious self-awareness about the mind-killing passivity of TV. Look up for just a second from this screen at the people around you staring at their own screens, twitching their thumbs like lab rats tapping for food pellets, ignoring friends and lovers and children, crossing streets, driving cars, like so many dodos you could walk right up to and club at your leisure. It all looks less like the coolly bleak cyberpunk dystopias of the 1990s than the bleakly bleak televisual dystopias of the 1950s.
I used to worry that TV had truncated my attention span to seven minutes—the standard interval between commercial breaks. Now I worry that kids who grew up on tweets and memes wouldn’t be able to endure the Tarkovskian longueur of a 1970s cereal commercial. We seem unable to focus on any single issue for more than a few days at a time. We’re like the citizens in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron,” handicapped by headphones that emit ear-splitting blasts of random noise every few seconds to keep them from pursuing a single thought.
Let me ask you something, off the record: Do you read as much as you used to? I feel like this is a shameful secret among a lot of the formerly literate people I know — even writers, people for whom reading has always been as integral a part of their lives as sex or dreaming. Sometimes this secretly worries me as much as my blackout drinking used to do, and for the same reason. I’m afraid I’ve done permanent damage to my brain.
Cranky, eggheaded critics used to warn that TV was an unambiguously bad cultural influence. It was destroying community in America, dumbing down our discourse, reducing everything to the lowest common denominator, deciding elections based on cosmetics instead of issues, breeding a generation of credulous idiots. Today, of course, we know that these alarmist cranks’ apocalyptic prophecies were all completely accurate. We now inhabit the nation of gullible imbeciles bred by television, a voting public that thinks pro wrestling is wrestling and reality TV is real and Fox News is news. Just as Ronald Reagan was the product of television — a genial, well-groomed B-list actor playing the role of The President — Donald Trump is an adaptive mutation of the internet: preening and sneering, speaking in tweets, utterly un-fact-checked, a political troll.
“What can you say,” a friend of mine once objected, “to the person who uses the internet two hours a day to watch Ornette Coleman videos, listen to Sufi poetry, and read all of Kierkegaard’s journals?” I applaud this hypothetical aesthete’s discernment and self-control. The only problem is that there is no such person any more than there’s anyone who actually eats the official USDA-recommended serving size of potato chips. Once this Kierkegaardian finds out about Pornhub or bodega cats on Instagram, it’s all over for him. It was never really TV’s programming that kept us watching; you just kept it on for its enveloping spell, the illusion that you weren’t alone. The endless stimulus, bright lights and colors, constant change and motion, and false promise of bottomless novelty press all our instinctual buttons in exactly the same way eight-hour videos of darting birds and squirrels captivate our pets. Content isn’t the real allure or hazard of the internet, either; it’s the delivery system, the nature of the medium itself, that’s so addictive and destructive.
As I was writing this essay, the internet in my building went ironically out, and I was extremely annoyed and discomfited and checked the connection every 17 seconds to see if it had come back on. I’m not writing this because I’m above the internet’s crass allure, but because I’m so susceptible to it. I’ve wasted more hours of my life than I can bear to count binge-watching shows I’ll never think about again, clicking through websites I’m ashamed to name, not because they’re pornographic but because they’re so puerile, glutting myself on microdoses of dopamine like fistfuls of Fritos. Since I am incapable of self-discipline, I have to impose external limits on myself. When I live at my Wi-Fi-less cabin in the summer, I have to drive 10 minutes to the library to get online. I spend about an hour a day checking email and the news. This turns out to be the correct amount of time to spend online. I feel calmer, saner. I read and draw again. Eventually I start to have my own thoughts. I begin to notice reality and experience my own life.
If we turned off all our screens and looked up at our lives, we might realize we’ve been spending them doing nothing at all.
Which is not necessarily pleasant. I think that experiencing our lives is the main thing we’re trying to avoid by immersing our heads in the ceaseless shitstream, the same way people used to keep the TV on all day “for company.” Remember the unsettling silence when you’d first turn the TV off — the ambient sound of the empty apartment, the shock of being left alone in your own head? If we turned off all our screens and looked up at our lives, we might realize we’ve been spending them doing nothing at all. All those hours spent scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, Imgur or Reddit, are just as irretrievably squandered as the ones I spent as a kid watching crap like Carter Country. One minute it’s not even 10 p.m.; the next thing you know, you’re 52.
There was a bumper sticker you used to see, back before resistance became futile: KILL YOUR TELEVISION. I’m not calling for the abolition of the internet, which at this point would be like calling for the abolition of cars (which would also be a net benefit to humanity, not that it matters). It’s a communications device like the telephone, a medium like video, and it won’t go away until it’s supplanted by something even worse. I just wish that instead of continuing to pretend it’s a great boon or numbly accepting it as inevitable, we could acknowledge that it is, on balance, bad for us. Right now we’re still like chain-smokers explaining that the doctors in the commercials say it’s actually good for you, or auto executives shrugging that consumers don’t want seat belts. I’m hoping I’ll live long enough to see a backlash against this zombie-ish docility — a day when, as abruptly and ruthlessly as a pack of middle school kids turning an idol into a pariah, this Pavlovian excitement for whatever consumer electronics they market at us next will look ovine and pathetic. Being online will be for docile old conformists, in the same way that, in less than a decade, smoking went from cinematically glamorous to a guilty addiction you have to indulge in the alley behind the bar.
We’re already seeing intimations of this: Facebook is already like a party where your parents showed up, and Twitter’s most famous user is the single uncoolest man on the planet. Young people are turning to pastimes like knitting or Dungeons & Dragons that involve manual skills or real-life interaction. Though, of course, the ones who drop out or disdain it won’t be bragging about it online, so for once, those most plugged in will be the last to know. The twittering voices will just grow gradually older and fewer, while unbeknownst to them, the kids will be outside, playing.
- The Year the Internet Thought I Was MacKenzie Bezos – WIRED
- Easy ways to get the fastest internet connection possible in your home – Komando
- Elon Musk says Starlink internet private beta to begin in roughly three months, public beta in six – TechCrunch
- Verizon is canceling home internet installations during the pandemic – The Verge
- Ethiopia’s internet shutdowns are disrupting millions of lives – Quartz Africa
- How to check if your service provider is throttling your internet – CNET
- 8 charts on internet use around the world as countries grapple with COVID-19 – Pew Research Center
- How to boost your home internet speeds while you’re stuck at home: Tech Support – Yahoo Money
- Welcome (Back) to the Appointment Internet – New York Magazine