The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

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.

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