Un-networking the self

By: Joshua Glenn
April 7, 2010

Last month, HiLobrow’s Peggy Nelson urged us to surrender to the imperatives of the “networked self.” She used to be freaked out, she said, when someone to whom she was talking was distracted by another conversation they were simultaneously having via mobile, Twitter, email… but

Eventually I stopped worrying and learned to love the flow. The very pervasiveness of the new multiplicity, and my participation in it, altered my perspective. Altered my Self. The end of the world as we know it? No — it’s the end of the world as I know it, the end of the world as you know it — but the beginning of the world as we know it.

At Slate, today, cartoonist James Sturm announces that he plans to stop this brave new world and get off. He won’t use the Internet, or send and receive email, for four months. Why? Because of the pervasiveness of the new multiplicity. Or, in cartoon-ese:

The Internet and email are getting in the way of things that Sturm values, he says. Like family time, and the ability to “carve out some space for myself to make new work.”

How to make use of new communications technologies without getting used by them? I wrote about this question some 14 years ago, after spending time at a gathering of plain Quakers (including Scott Savage, one of the coolest people I’ve ever met), Bill McKibben, the neo-Luddite Kirkpatrick Sale, the Internet-skeptical physicist Clifford Stoll, and others concerned about the same thing. The answer, arrived at via consensus, was simple: we should prioritize “times of rest, times of fasting from production and consumption; time spent in solitude, listening and waiting.”

Easier said than done — because, as Peggy notes, our use of communications technologies cannot be disentangled from existential questions. If we don’t know what makes us tick, then we’re doomed to yo-yo from Internet addiction to neo-Luddism and back again.

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What do you think?

  1. Moar later, but I would just like to note immediately that this argument gets framed as a moral imperative from the “other side:” family, nature, being creative, figuring out “what really matters.” Well, who can argue with any of that? Except that’s not the right frame. All this stuff is happening anyway, the figuring out, the pushme-pullyou dynamic between models of the self and the environment/other, whether we’re using quill pens or the latest iThing. Of course technology does not *merely externalize, it also augments and limits, in various ways. And always has, even stone tools and cave paintings. Or domesticated fire. Or, “just” storytelling. All of which is to say, the frame is not “what is better,” I think; it’s “what is more interesting.”

    And if we’re really dragging in the moral imperatives, well — as a response, “checking out” is, at the very least, open to question.

  2. As much as I’d like to say, “oh, come on!” I like Sturm’s essay and his reasoning. It’s deliberate; it is backed by the force of an idea. He’s not the first to want to unplug for a while, we know. I love these lines from Walden, in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”:

    “And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter–we never need read of another.”

    The danger of nostalgia, Luddism, false retreat? Sure. Why not? Much better than some tame, Good Housekeeping formula for “balancing” work and family, etc. We need more extremism, not less. I say: go Sturm. Do it. I’m jealous. Do it for all of us who secretly want to do it, too.

  3. >the frame is not “what is better,” I think; it’s “what is more interesting.”

    Way to lay your cards on the table, Peggy! A classic aestheticist’s response to moralists.

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