It’s mid-morning, and I’m sitting in a sprawl of loose paper, empty cups, junk mail, and a 23-inch monitor that cancels the rest and makes it peripheral. The street outside hums with cars pressing toward the tunnel. Manhattan’s street grid was established a little over two hundred years ago—in 1811—before electricity, before cars, before skyscrapers, and yet the basic ingredients of the grid—streets and blocks—continue to shape New Yorkers’ angular experience of the city, guiding our every movement: up, down, left, right, forward, and backward, as if controlled by an analog stick.
I return my attention to the screen. My email’s inbox contains twenty-four unread messages, each with its own set of promises and anxieties, all appearing in bold black letters against a clean white background. What was once one tool among many now feels like a way of life. I’m on the internet virtually every hour of every day: searching, texting, scrolling. I seek out messages and headlines automatically, without thought or feeling.
There’s an old definition of ideology: “They do not know it, but they are doing it.” To communicate in GIFs, to watch twenty ten-second videos in a row, to scan through thirty brands of cereal at two in the morning, looking for that perfect balance of taste and value—it feels as natural as walking, as ordinary as the sky and the clouds.
When I consider the internet dispassionately, I know that it's pure invention, an expression of the culture. Yet it’s also a part of who I am, like my clothes or my diet. But while my shirt disappears after I put it on, the next meal hounds my thoughts. That's what the internet feels like--like sugar. Buried in e-mails, articles, and to-dos—and still wanting more—I wonder if it’s better to think of the internet as the craving or the thing craved. Is it in me, or am I in it?
Our current era goes by several names. Each seems dated at best and cringe-worthy at worst, relics of the late twentieth century. I imagine the words booming through loud speakers in some future museum’s corner exhibit: Post-Modernity! The Information Age! The Digital Era! It feels strange to define the contemporary moment, like writing yesterday’s news, but we all understand what’s changed over the last twenty years. I now fall asleep every night with a little computer next to my head.
In the story of who we are and what we’re becoming, the internet is now the lead player. In a historical blink of the eye, it has touched every corner of the planet. I’m reminded of the famous exchange from The Sun Also Rises, when Bill asks Mike how he went bankrupt: “Two ways,” he said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
Gradually and then suddenly, the internet has come to fill our days. It depends on who you ask as to whether this is cause for celebration or concern. The internet’s benefits are obvious. The banality of the word itself, “the internet,” fails to convey what it means to me and to you. It’s a vehicle for everything I want to know and see and hear. My friends and family are always just over there: charging on the bedside table, buffering in the window, waiting for a reply. I’m sure I could survive without it, but why would I want to?
To this question—“Why not the internet?”—it’s increasingly fashionable to offer some variation of the following answer: the internet delivers breadth at the expense of depth, and, as a result, a part of the human character (some would call it “the soul”) is weakening, like an unused muscle.
Writers like Jonathan Franzen and Karl Ove Knausgaard express a deep wariness about technology’s increased role in our lives. The hippest indie musicians—including St. Vincent, Father John Misty, and Sun Kil Moon—pen songs about the strangeness of living with the internet and its numbered, numbing devices. Werner Herzog’s 2016 documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, offers a grim, cautionary examination of how the internet is changing the world and us along with it.
Such reservations about technology are nothing new. Prior to the current wave of worry, a long line of journalists and academics—including Richard Hofstader (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, 1963), Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1984), and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together, 2011)—sounded warning bells about a culture fascinated with trivialities. Each author yearns for communities of old and looks on skeptically at a culture entranced. The daily-waged fight against boredom may never be won, and, in the meantime, we’re drifting further into a pool of “white noise,” to use Don DeLillo’s phrase of thirty years ago.
In September 2016, Andrew Sullivan penned an insightful article for New York Magazine, “My Distraction Sickness,” in which he described the heart of the internet problem:
Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.
The novelty of the habit—information extending from our finger tips—is undeniable. But are the concerns overstated? Over the course of human history, as technology altered our understanding of time, space, self, and community, the mind’s song has always changed its pitch. The brain is malleable. When people first settled into permanent dwellings, when money first circulated from hand to hand, when books filled the world like rushing water, when electricity gave us the night—in each instance, humanity adapted.
But, compared to books and houses, the internet’s moreish information feels like an uncertain investment, taking much and giving back less. What’s more, the internet lacks the artfulness of other distractions. There’s little poetry in it, no vocabulary apart from search engines, proxy servers, portals, posts, domains, and blogospheres. Ask a group of children to paint a picture of a mountain, a person, or a town, and you’ll get back the world. Ask them to paint the internet, and you’ll get a bunch of puzzled stares. And yet we live there.
But what if the internet were a work of art? I once read somewhere that serious art aspires to do one thing: to bring what’s inside to the outside, and vice versa. What qualifies as “inside?” Things like memory, desire, hunger, and thirst. Outside of us hang the countless forms: the apple, the table, the person sitting next to you.
So here’s what I really want to know: Which is it? Is the internet inside or outside?
I’m picturing my own brain. I know it must reside under the skin, within the skull, protected by twenty-two bones, always hidden from view. Blush arteries, purple veins, and pink tissue. I imagine if I were to touch it, and I feel almost dizzy. I start to circle the question of whether objects exist out there or in here, under my fingers touching the skin covering the skull protecting the tissue that houses the neuron firing. Oscar Wilde said, “It is in the brain that the poppy is red, that the apple is odorous, that the skylark sings.” I linger on the idea that I can actually feel that my consciousness resides within the head, in an area just above the shoulders, and I wonder how ancient cultures ever believed otherwise. For a brief moment, I suspect I’m closing in on something worth wondering about.
But then my torso shifts ever so slightly up and to the right. My left arm swings down as my left hand muscles into a well-worn left pocket. The little monolith emerges, and my button finger does its work, lighting up the screen to reveal no new messages, no e-mails, no missed calls, and no alerts. It is 11:37 A.M. March 4, 2017. My eyes float back into the room, back to tables and chairs and walls.
Where was I?
I am riding the 6 train, making local stops from lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side. According to the MTA’s website, each train in service consists of ten cars, and each car can hold about two hundred people, sitting and standing. Two thousand New Yorkers in all, barreling through dirty tunnels in a tube of light.
An argument starts up across from me. A woman with brown hair, maybe in her forties, has bumped into someone, an older woman in a puffy jacket, who’s now yelling in little spurts: “Don’t touch me...just don’t touch me!”
It’s a common dispute on the train. People become incensed when pushed from behind, even though it’s often unavoidable, there are simply too many people for such a small space. But the old lady is outraged, she continues to shout, and soon the woman with brown hair pulls out her phone, holds it up, and begins to record the situation.
Feeling warm in my cheeks, I return to my phone, first checking my e-mail (no service) and then switching to a mindless game. I swipe my finger to kick a soccer ball past computer-controlled opponents.
My high score is sixty-seven goals in a row, but I’ll be lucky to hit more than ten given the current atmosphere. The shouting hasn’t stopped—“Oh, you’re going to film me now?”—and a low murmur from the other passengers tells the two women to be quiet, shut up already, just get off the train.
I keep my head down, but thoughts are blowing through me, as if in one ear, up a ladder, down again, and out the other ear.
Should I say something? How much longer until the next stop? What if I gave the old woman my seat, would that calm the situation?
But it would be embarrassing to insert myself. I would instantly become part of the whole thing. And no one expects a stranger to intervene.
So, the argument rolls on in waves and eddies, the train rumbles down the track, and, pulled in more directions than I care to be, I flick again and score.
I often wonder about inner life, that realm of experience universal to all and unique to me. Philosophers dating back to Descartes have wrestled with questions concerning the nature of consciousness and how we should understand our mental selves in the context of a material world. Where do “I” begin and where does “the world” end?
The “inward turn” was the hallmark gesture of artists and intellectuals who thought about thinking in the 20th Century. German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger changed philosophy forever by advocating a “phenomenological approach” to consciousness, observing the “phenomena” of subjective experience (the feeling of a hot shower, the sensation of a sunny day, the mood of a room) exactly as the phenomena arose, without recourse to prior notions or meanings.
Similarly, in the 1920s and 30s, writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust experimented with a literary device called “stream of consciousness,” an effort to transcribe thoughts and ideas exactly as they surface in the mind: flitting, fragmented, and always on the move.
But times have changed. It’s harder than ever to look within. The big, experimental novels of Joyce, Woolf, and Proust are boring to many students today because their pages are filled with the clutter of an utterly unfamiliar everyday life. Teatime, parlor talk, and long walks along real rivers have been replaced with pop culture, social media, and the unerring flow of information.
In the face of info-rich days, I’ll occasionally hazard small doses of self-reflection. Every few months, I download a meditation app on my phone. I sit on my apartment floor, cross-legged and with my back straight, mildly aching. I hear a sauntering voice, typically British, instructing me to focus on the breath, and, if I get distracted by other thoughts, which is perfectly natural, I should simply return my attention to the breath, in and out. The habit never sticks for more than a few days. The app itself is typically excised during a late-night phone cleanse.
What’s so attractive about the internet then? What makes it irresistible?
Consider what we now know about the brain. In his book, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr builds much of his argument—namely, that the internet is changing how we think, and not necessarily for the better—upon the idea of neuroplasticity.
It’s something of a buzzword these days, particularly because the concept meshes so nicely with the objectives of various self-help hawks, but, all the same, neuroplasticity represents a revolution in our understanding of how the brain works.
In effect, neuroplasticity is a bio-chemical testament to the power of repetition. Brain cells (neurons) “fire” constantly, engaging in chemical reactions with other neurons and creating “neural pathways” that spring into being every time an action is repeated. The more we perform an activity (walk the dog, catch a ball, check email), the stronger the links between neurons become. This is the neurochemical explanation for Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule,” and it’s the basis of what’s now known as Hebb’s rule: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”
Do I take the same route to work every morning because it is the fastest? Maybe. But, at least in part, I do it simply because it’s what I’ve done before.
Do I eat at the same restaurants because I like the food? Of course. But it’s also because my “double-cheeseburger-with-fries-and-a-soda” neural pathway is remarkably strong.
Carr applies this knowledge of the brain’s plasticity to our use of the Internet:
One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.
The internet—through a carefully designed series of positive reinforcements, which make us ever so slightly happier with each click, each successful search, and each received message—strengthens certain neural pathways while others weaken over time through disuse. When we jump from window-to-window, app-to-app, our brains bustle with activity across multiple regions, particularly in the prefrontal areas associated with problem solving. But this hyperactivity comes at a price. Deep, reflective thinking becomes increasingly difficult as the brain processes more and more information.
The internet lights up the brain, “[seizing] our attention just to scatter it,” as Carr describes it. It’s the perfect participant in a world dominated by speed, mediation, and excess: more television channels, more shipping routes, more flight paths, and more neural pathways.
So, the internet draws us in, hour by hour, because the brain defaults to the same old grooves. It’s an elegant idea, but there’s something unsatisfactory about this explanation. “Neuroplasticity” exists entirely outside my conscious experience, like atoms or black holes. In fact, the well-meaning emphasis on plasticity and brain scans may miss the point entirely: what about the mind? What about inner life?
A concern for inner life defines the work of Australian philosopher David Chalmers, who writes extensively about consciousness and technology. Chalmers has not only made a career out of introspection: he’s done so with style. For most of his professional life, the leading philosopher of mind sported a 1990s heavy-metal mullet. The long hair is gone, but Chalmers has kept the rest of his signature look: black leather jacket (unbuttoned, open) over a graphic t-shirt (patterned, faded) tucked inside a pair of regular-cut blue jeans.
Most of us unconsciously update our wardrobes over the years, but Chalmers looks to be an artifact from the Clinton era—he published his first book, The Conscious Mind, in 1996, and he’s now a dowdy mainstay on the lecture circuit.
Chalmers is known for his memorable take on a particularly tricky problem—so tricky, in fact, that Chalmers calls it (in big, capital letters) the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” Maybe it’s the problem’s vague and impractical difficulty that has kept Chalmers stuck in leather and denim. He’s had time to think about nothing else, least of all his clothes.
The Hard Problem reclaims an age-old philosophical sparring ground known as the “Mind/Body Problem,” summed up nicely in an old line by The Smiths: “Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body? I don’t know…”
Chalmers agrees: we just don’t know.
The Hard Problem poses a simple question with no clear answer: how is it that a series of neurochemical interactions—intricately complex but ultimately physical in essence—give rise to mental experience, to the peculiar sensation of peering out at the world from behind a pair of eyeballs? In even simpler terms: how does physical stuff produce non-physical being, i.e., conscious experience?
Don’t expect an answer: the Hard Problem remains a mystery, maybe the mystery. The question of consciousness has been poked and prodded but never solved—not even close. And it’s becoming more complicated, not less, as new technology swells before our eyes and echoes in our ears.
I load a TED talk on YouTube. Chalmers, looking like a Rush roadie, is discussing his theory of the extended mind. “If you ask most people ‘Where is your mind?,’ they’ll point and say, ‘Somewhere in there’,” Chalmers says to the crowd, pointing to his temple. “The extended mind thesis will transform our vision of the mind by saying that the mind is not just in the brain: it’s partly in the world around us, in the environment that we interact with.”
Chalmers means this literally. He believes that the mind, in part, exists out there in the tools and objects that constitute our spatial surroundings. Under such a schema, the skull becomes an arbitrary border, a paper wall through which consciousness breathes. If I eat a bag of potato chips, then my mind is in the salt; it’s in the crunch and in the foil.
Forget about falsifiability for a moment. When I consider Chalmers’ takedown of dualism, his rejection of the idea that an impassable divide separates mind from world, I think back to any number of nights, lying in bed with an overheated laptop on my chest, lost in a digital pageant of sound and image, and I begin to wonder if there’s some truth in the idea. Just as a great film absorbs consciousness (Hollywooders used to call the movies a “dream factory”), and just as the magic of sleep transports us between night and morning worlds, when the internet monopolizes all attention, you’re gone. The mind is elsewhere.
Chalmers himself deploys technology as a principle example of mental extension at work. “Things my brain used to do are now done by my iPhone,” he says. Remembering phone numbers, performing basic calculations, navigating from Point A to Point B—mental processes are offloaded. Memories live in the cloud. There is no sleight of hand in Chalmers’ argument; he’s simply describing common experiences. We are in the devices, and the devices are in us.
A few months ago, I dropped my phone, which I usually grip like an alcoholic clutching his flask, and the screen fractured into a dozen cracked lines. I cut my thumb on the glass later that night, and, until it was fixed, I felt a bit embarrassed when wielding my phone around others, as if the cracked screen were a skin deformity looking back at me.
When I think about the internet and its gravitational influence, I sway in two directions, between the poles of science and philosophy, unsure of whether answers hide in the neurochemicals of the brain or along the contours of the mind. From either vantage point, the basic takeaway remains the same: the internet is changing us.
Beyond this meager fact, it’s difficult to say more. To understand the long-term effects of internet life brings us into the worrisome condition of “not knowing,” to borrow Donald Barthelme’s memorable phrase. This leads to an obvious irony: the internet offers all the information in the world but its own potency remains something of a mystery.
Faced with such uncertainty, I take stock of what I do know. The internet, like the television before it, is a great comfort and a great addiction. And, for billions of people, the internet is a powerful tool, enabling much good in the world. In my own life, I know that I will continue to take the good with the bad, the birthday wishes with the vapid headlines.
But what a lackluster inventory! Unknowns excite the intellect, not the facts of the matter, and the internet’s ability to warp what we essentially are—plastic beings extending into the world—obscures a host of riddles.
Freud famously dealt with the unseen. He wrote about repetition compulsion and the “death drive,” about humanity’s desire to “return to an earlier stage of things,” to repeat the past ceaselessly and without care for consequences. He threw a floodlight on the basement of the mind and whatever monsters might lurk there.
The internet may or may not be a monster, but, like you, I’m consumed by it. The smartphones, servers, and satellites out there appear harmless enough, but the internet in here persists day-to-day as a vast territory that demands to be charted.
Just as the brain is a precondition for consciousness, the internet facilitates words, sounds, images, and data. And, as with consciousness, the internet’s Hard Problem resists investigation because, upon inspection, everything blends together—the medium and the message, the representation and the reality.
As a child, I remember being struck by the fact that, as long as I lived, I would never see myself in the flesh. I may see my own reflection, photos and videos of myself. But I would never see “me” as others saw me.
And so it is with the internet. We can no longer see it.
It’s morning again, and I’m stuck in the austerity of my dentist’s waiting room, ten floors above Rockefeller Plaza. Three things are happening as I see it: my newsfeed is slowly populating, the receptionist is chatting with a hygienist, and a young father, no older than twenty-five, is struggling to placate his daughter, who must be around eighteen months old. She’s flailing on the ground, adopting the spread-eagle pose, rotating her body in a widening circle, ignoring the road bump of her father’s sneakers, stammering out half-formed words.
After a few minutes of whispered pleas—“sit in the chair…just be still…”—he pulls out his ace in the hole. “Who wants to watch Elmo?” he says. She climbs his knees and burrows in his lap, her head resting on his arm, she’s been here many times before. He positions his phone so that it becomes a little personal cinema, and then glances in my direction. “You got kids?” he asks. I laugh and say no, not yet, I’m in no rush. “Keep waiting,” he says. “But when you do, always be sure your phone’s charged.”
For the next few minutes, the room is quiet except for muffled noises from Sesame Street. When the clip is nearly over, the young girl begins to shift and squirm, uncertain of what will happen next. But another Elmo automatically loads, her eyes flicker and widen, and everything is okay.