The debonair and charming Australian art critic Sebastian Smee has written a topical, thoughtprovoking Quarterly Essay, Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age (Black Inc, $22.99). Smee contemplates a question that is nagging at us all. Is addiction to screens ruining our lives, making us lesser, angrier, dumber people?
We will run a review of the book soon. Today is just my two cents’ worth. Smee’s essay has been on my mind for a surprising reason. I agree with almost everything he says, and I disagree with almost everything he says.
I know Smee a little — he worked on this newspaper before heading to The Washington Post — and admire his writing on art and literature. He draws on many writers, from JM Coetzee to Alice Munro, to try to explain the elusive concept of an inner life. Anton Chekhov leads the pack. Smee uses Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog to draw the distinction between the inner life and the outer life, which is a “sheath … and, at its worst, false, a sham”.
He goes on to say our inner selves, rich, complex and obscure even to us, are “eroding” as “we live more and more of our lives online and attached to our phones”. It is even worse for our “lonely” children. Facebook and other corporations are to blame. They monitor us, strip away our privacy to sell tailor-made advertising based on our online “likes” and web browsing. Central to this business model are social media platforms that release us from any obligation to objectivity, or decency.
“We are in an angry moment,” Smee writes. “It is incredible, on Facebook and Twitter … to see how quickly people fall into abuse, sarcasm and general nastiness.” He adds that distraction has become “our new default setting”.
I think all of that is true. On being a “microtarget” for advertising, I can speak only from personal experience. The one occasion I remember involved a pop-up ad that asked if I’d like to buy the same sunglasses as Jon Hamm wore in Mad Men. You bet I did! The other ads I ignore. Ditto with the abuse on social media. I ignore it. I dismiss it as solipsism and stupidity.
As I say, this is just how it is for me. I know people can be ripped off by online scams. But my broader point is that we all still have a say in this. No one is holding a gun to our heads to make us look at Twitter, check our emails at 4am or buy Hamm's shades. We have free will. This extends to Americans and Donald Trump. If enough of them don’t vote for him in 2020, regardless of what the Russians and Facebook do, then he will not be re-elected.
“We cannot go back to old ways of being in the world,” Smee writes. “Chekhov’s time, his way of being, is not coming back, and nor would we want it to.” I disagree. Chekhov had such an intense inner life that, as Smee notes, he protected it from his writing. That option, of nurturing an inner self, remains open to all of us. And we can indeed go back a bit if we want to. Smee’s essay is an important reminder that we have a lot to lose. If we choose to lose it. The cartoon below, a neat segue from Smee’s QE, is from Tom Gauld’s The Snooty Bookshop: Fifty Literary Postcards (Canongate, $24.99), which is a fine Christmas stocking filler. Each of the postcards can be detached and used. The one featuring Jonathan Franzen is funny, as is the one in which Frankenstein’s monster explains his name. Perhaps my favourite, though, is the one headed Cost Breakdown of a Slim Volume of Poetry.