Se­bas­tian Smee Net Loss: The In­ner Life in the Dig­i­tal Age

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

We’re all feel­ing the down­sides of life on the in­ter­net. Not just see­ing them – though that too – but per­son­ally feel­ing them, which means we can man­i­fest them in dif­fer­ent types of lan­guage that other peo­ple may find more or less mean­ing­ful or use­ful in re­flect­ing their own in­ner worlds. Once I fin­ished this es­say by Se­bas­tian Smee, the Pulitzer-win­ning art critic first for The Bos­ton Globe and now for The Wash­ing­ton Post, by way of the Univer­sity of Syd­ney, I looked long and hard at my phone and tried to pay at­ten­tion to what feel­ings it squeezes out of my own gooey soul. It’s a mix of ex­cite­ment, ex­haus­tion and rou­tine blah­ness; the whole thing feels like kind of a smear.

For Smee, “Even when I put my de­vice aside and at­tach it to a charger, it pulses away in my mind, like the throat of a toad, full of blind, am­phib­ian ap­petite.” The throat of a toad – so men­ac­ing. As an im­age, wicked and pre­cise. Al­though this es­say in­cludes a lot of data and anal­y­sis, it in­cludes in equal mea­sure im­ages such as these, mini-es­says on con­tem­po­rary artists, a high vol­ume of Alice Munro quotes, and some pretty funny judge­ments about the gooey souls of ac­tual peo­ple the au­thor knows. It’s not sci­ence, but Smee, whose crit­i­cism is known for its pas­sion­ate en­thu­si­asm, ap­proaches this grimy topic as a pas­sion­ate en­thu­si­ast. We may not feel any­thing ter­rific when we look at the in­ter­net, but you can write full-heart­edly about this bleak and de­hu­man­is­ing tool, which has come to feel like the state of the world but it needn’t.

The es­say is eru­dite and om­niv­o­rous – like an up­graded toad – but it treats the reader, and the in­ter­net, a lit­tle bit too mer­ci­fully. I wanted to com­mit to a life that’s all in­ner, no outer, full of long walks in the moon­light – one of the au­thor’s favourite things – prefer­ably on the way to a dev­as­tat­ing bon­fire full of beau­ti­fully burn­ing tech bro ef­fi­gies. I am con­vinced a venge­ful spirit is pound­ing through this es­say, but the voice comes off as rea­soned and care­fully ap­pro­pri­ate, some­times in a way that’s counter to the point it seems to be mak­ing. In other words, it gives a good sense of prox­im­ity to an­other hu­man mind, even as it’s ask­ing in­ter­est­ing ques­tions about the na­ture of these minds – whether there’s re­ally such a thing as in­ner life, and if so, how we know we’re feel­ing it, let alone shar­ing it. As the nov­el­ist said to the wi-fi router, only con­nect. CR

Quar­terly Es­say, 128pp, $22.99

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