Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Andrew Sullivan on the Distracted Life in New York Magazine

I apologize for the sparse blogging as of late. I've started teaching at a new school, and the start of the school year, combined with learning the ins-and-outs of my new community, has filled up my mental space. I hope to have more time to think and write as all of these new things settle into a routine, which is already starting to happen.

While I have a minute, though, I wanted to draw attention to Andrew Sullivan's article in the most recent issue of New York Magazine. Sullivan, you might know, is among the most prominent cultural writers of our time. He was one of the first public figures to push for same-sex marriage. His blog was at the forefront of the push of the 24/7 cycle of news-and-commentary, and his influence is enormous.

Sullivan stopped blogging last year, and in his article he writes about his recovery from addiction to the information cloud. I won't recap the article here, but a few things struck me:

First, we can add Sullivan to the list of prominent writers who are leading the discussion about the harms of 24/7 access to information, along with Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, Matthew Crawford, etc. These are folks who are arguing that personal technology is not only changing how we understand the world but how we understand ourselves as human beings. I tend to agree with them, of course, and think that our future depends on figures of their generation (30-and-older) speaking out now about what is happening. We have the privilege of remembering what I've heard called "an analog past"--a time when our thoughts were not directed towards the digital stream, when there was no alternative to being present where you were, when peace and rest and leisure seemed to come a little easier than it does now. My current students do not have this memory--as they grow older, smartphones and wifi will be to them what television is to most of us living now: something always there, as fixed in the universe as rock ledge.

It is easier for those with a memory of an analog existence to fall prey to technological cynicism and visions of the apocalypse, for sure. But those who have experienced life without the cloud are the only ones who are able to remember what the cloud obscures, what was lost. We are living on what we could call a "seam" of history, where the direction of society takes a drastic shift, and while we are on that seam we can see that direction as a direction, and not as the background scenery. To know something for what it really is, as Eliot said, is to know it "for the first time." We are there now, and writers like Sullivan, who do the work of preserving that vision of technological havoc while it is still fresh, are not unlike Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and the other Romantics, who witnessed what kind of transcendent vision was being lost in industrialization, and tried to preserve it in their art.

My second observation is that Sullivan's article is more proof that the current state of affairs moves intellectuals into two camps: those who follow the god of information and those who admit that there is a soul. Is human experience ultimately material or transcendent? There is no in-between, and one benefit of the rapid acceleration of personal technology is that it forces the hand of thinkers who otherwise wouldn't be caught talking positively about things like religion to admit that the world does have meaning. Consider Sullivan, a fallen-away Catholic who is publicly at odds with the Church, who in his article writes about the importance of monasteries and of creating a space in our routines, such as "weekly Mass...that lets your life breathe." Religion, Catholicism especially, might be the only cultural institution left that has a chance of surviving the information age with its identity intact, because its practices cultivate stillness rather than restlessness, silence rather than noise, being consumed by rather than consuming.

Sullivan, who should know better than anyone else the effects of 24/7 connection to the information stream, writes at the end of his essay that "the threat is to our souls." Strong words from a man who has chosen them carefully. I urge you to read his essay.