We all know this to be true: too much digital connectivity is a curse. It is a devil. It is the red-eyed, green-eyed, blinking, beeping, sickening, fooling demon. We know in our human heart of hearts that spending so much time around a computer and, worse, carrying around a portable ’puter-phone like a baby with a pacifier, is weird and small and silly and foolish.
We know it. We know that as a social animal it is cruel, strange, alien, and alienating to play with the device while purporting to be in another’s company. We know that if we sit at table at a meal at a restaurant and stroke our device, we are insulting everybody in our company. It’s as if we pulled down our pants and started masturbating in wait for the hors d’oeuvres.
I’m out with a friend recently and we’re talking at a bar. He’s a guy I admire and consider decent. He’s masturbating next to me on his device, stroking up and down, texting.
I try to engage him. Not much there. Shit, I’d be distracted too if I were masturbating.
I grab the device out of his hands.
He throws a fit, can’t believe it. Give me back the phone, he says.
I was fucking doing something.
You’re hanging out with me, how often do we see each other?
Now he’s shouting, he’s hysterical. GIVE ME BACK THE PHONE!
Fuck the device. Shut it off.
Give it back to me!
You can’t have a conversation without it?
Give it back!
I’ll give it back if you shut that shit off and we talk, man to man.
I feel like I’m in kindergarten. He’s grabbing at it. His face is twisted up.
Wittle child, I tell him. Wittle, wittle child.
GIVE ME THE FUCKIN’ PHONE OR I’M GONNA PUNCH YOU IN YOUR FACE!
I give it back.
And when the creature gets it back in its hands, here’s the really weird part: the creature grasps the object like an infant who has lost some terribly prized object—its hands fly over the sacred object’s surface frantically, until its demeanor settles like the calm after a great wind. The creature is one again, whole, purposeful, true, and looks up from the device, smiling.
Brooklyn is full of such lunatics, and of course so is all of New York City, and the United States—and everywhere on planet earth where commodity fetishism has spread its virus.
I recognize this smile: it’s that of the abuser, the fiend, the crack addict, the dependent. I’m dealing, obviously, with a junkie.
Now, as we know, the junkie is considered a problem in society. Programs are created to help him, ideologies are crafted to dissuade him from the abuse of the drug, and, grievously, unjustly, prison is lined up for him if he doesn’t reform. Not a good way to deal with drug abuse.
The digital drug addict in our age, however, is validated at every juncture. The system is designed to maintain, and always expand, the addiction. The very nature of the information economy is that it must expand, like a cancer, and it must have more consumers, cancerously consuming, being cancerously consumed. This is called progress.
Drug addiction, cancer, and the digital info economy are unified in the brief vitality of more: there must be more drugs, until there is death; there must be more cells, until there are none. There must be more information to consume, until the mind goes mad or degenerates. (Read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows to understand how the Internet is rewiring our brains.)
The user, the abuser, is weak and stupid: he, she, is you and me. Entire systems, propaganda networks, marketing, advertising, villainous, insidious, are arrayed against us (arrayed by us against ourselves—a tragicomedy). On sunny days, I can imagine a way forward: most human beings captured in the ugly, vicious, monopolistic, totalistic system of the iPhone, the constant access, the beeping and blinking, feel something else is possible. Almost every single person I’ve interviewed about the experience of being disconnected from the Internet has said the same thing: they feel better, more whole, more human, more alive, more spontaneous without a connection to the Web. They do not want to be digital mushbrains. They know the devil.
What makes digital mushbrainedness so common is that everyone else is joining in. But as long as everyone else isn’t joining in—which means you—then there is hope. So for all of our sakes, put down your iPhones and don’t tweet this article.