This week n+1 brings us the latest "The internet is rotting your brain" article in the form of a review of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story by Alice Gregory. Her life was apparently ruined by an iPhone, because she can no longer restrain herself from its wiles:
I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both "keep up" with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM.
Granted, I'm writing this as someone who just posted a five-part series on how I like to read stuff on a screen, but I wouldn't call that exhausting. You know what's exhausting? Real life. A day job you don't particularly like. Paying bills. Getting your kids ready for school. Taking your dog to the emergency vet because he had a seizure and fell down the stairs. I don't know anything about Alice Gregory so I'm not going to presume she doesn't have similar demands in her life, but she wants us to believe that having a smartphone in her pocket (a very expensive piece of equipment she is fortunate to be able to afford, by the way) has inflicted a great injustice and robbed her intellectual depth. I find that hard to swallow.
I started to get impatient with such arguments as I read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, which has become the Bible for those looking to lay blame on the internet for their attention span deficiencies. The internet is no more distracting than two people having a conversation nearby, or the TV blaring reruns of According to Jim in waiting room at Jiffy Lube. At least you can close the laptop or turn off the phone. The fog of disengagement and inattention that Gregory and Carr describe isn't forced upon you by technology. You choose to let it happen to you. Someone tethered to a Blackberry for work may have a legitimate gripe on this point because they suffer real consequences for ignoring the beeps, but claiming that you must keep up with purely recreational Twitter streams or blog feeds is an entirely self-created problem.
Besides, as I hope the type of person who reads a blog for an online literary magazine knows, the internet isn't a wasteland of non sequitur tweets and impenetrable, inside-joke Tumblogs. Literature is carving out its territory online because people want something better once they've made their obligatory social network rounds. As Ben Johncock says in this piece from the Guardian on the revival of literary magazines online:
... after half an hour -- after you've exhausted your regular websites and blogs, and everyone on Twitter and Facebook is in bed -- you get the same feeling as you do from eating chocolate all day. Could we be in a place now where technology has brought us full circle? Where that which took us away from stories is now set to bring us back to them?
Yes. You just need the perspective to sort out the necessary from the guilty pleasures, to distinguish the real problems from the self-inflicted, and to have the courage to step away when something makes you unhappy.