In The Soul’s Dark Night, a Digital Solace
June 10, 2013
Though the birth classes my wife and I took last summer while we were expecting our daughter were almost painfully thorough, they did not answer a few pressing questions: What is one to do if the imminent arrival of his first child engenders nothing but fear and dread? If the creation of new life turns his morbid mind to the inexorability of death? If the mere notion of bringing an innocent creature into this malevolently entropic world fills him with an anxiety that is like a persistent, unreachable itch?
The iPad is a perfect nightlight. It is the fatherly reassurance that Freud says we all crave.
Some take drugs, prescribed or not. For others, a stiff drink is a favorite (not to mention traditional) self-medication. Fair enough. But when my own neurons get overheated, I prefer to chill them in the soothing currents of the digital seas.
As a journalist, I can justify my e-obsession by claiming that following Twitter feeds these days more or less passes for original reporting. But even by that measure, I am like a bartender who pours himself a tall one a little too frequently throughout the night. The guy who is never really drunk, but never quite sober.
I don’t want to call it addiction, to trivialize the suffering of alcoholics and compulsive gamblers. It is more like reliance, a psychological craving that will only be satisfied by the calming swipes of my finger across the smooth, shimmering screen of a device.
Thus, as my wife was going into her 10th hour of labor, I was blasting through my Instapaper reading list, making sure I was fully informed about both the future of Syria and hipster mustaches. The next day, the first day of my daughter’s life, I was back on Facebook, wallowing in inanity like a pig in mud.
I am far from alone. Some researchers are pushing for inclusion of Internet Use Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which would effectively make it a mental illness. And a recent article in the Web publication LiveScience noted that “The Web’s unpredictable payoffs train people much in the same way Ivan Pavlov trained dogs, which were conditioned in the 19th century to salivate when they heard a bell they associated with food. Over time, people link a cue (e.g., an instant-message ping or the Facebook homepage) with a pleasurable rush of feel-good brain chemicals.”
The thing is, I love the Internet. I need my gadgets. I don’t want to be cured.
Ever since my own birth, it seems, I have dreaded nightfall and the silence of the evening dark. As an adult, I have been granted some solace. The iPad is a perfect nightlight. It is the fatherly reassurance that Freud says we all crave. Mine comes from a man named Steve.
I push a button and, as the argentine glow washes over my face, my dread begins to recede. The image of an apple appears; it has been bitten and I can not help but think of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. But in a moment the apple disappears, and – lo! – is replaced by salvation: orderly rows of apps, bright columns of faithful soldiers in my own private war against solitude and disorder and oblivion.
The dread is gone.
I am a child again, I regard red notification balloons with excitement; they bring updates and news. I scroll through a slideshow on Buzzfeed — huh, that corgi really does look like Richard Nixon — and check Epicurious for a recipe for vegetarian pasta carbonara, because one day I really would like to make vegetarian carbonara for my wife, and wasn’t there a gift on Amazon I wanted to buy her, and look what’s finally in the Kindle store…
Maybe it is merely distraction, the oft-reported undoing of the focused, sophisticated mind. But I think it is something more. The philosopher Thomas Carlyle once called our planet “a hall of doom” — a diagnosis all too easily confirmed by most days’ news. But the terror that the outside world so frequently engenders can be neutralized — by YouTube videos of dachshund puppies, Facebook updates from “friends” I do not know, Instagrammed chronicles of exotic meals I am too timid to ever try and too cheap to ever pay for, the Twitter wisdom of @KimKierkegaardashian, not to mention that one Tumblr about how dads are the original hipsters. For thrills, I visit places on GoogleEarth that I am unlikely to visit in reality. I go on CollegeConfidential and pretend that I, too, am, deciding between Swarthmore and Cornell. All I am trying to do is turn Carlyle’s hall of doom into someplace more bearable, a digital cocktail lounge with a rotating cast of characters who do not mind being observed and who are always engaging and appropriately loquacious and are never bothered when I choose to go converse with someone else.
I would never claim that we live in a digital utopia. But might we take some comfort in several minutes in my completely unremarkable Facebook news feed: Someone (I don’t know her or how we became friends) has asked fellow users to support a program that allows poor young women in the Bay Area to experience the outdoors; someone else has posted an image of an Emily Dickinson manuscript; a journalist whom I respect has linked to an article about the dangers of generic drugs, appending the post with her own insightful views on the incompetence of the Food and Drug Administration. On Twitter, intelligent people are debating Benghazi, bike lanes and the Miami Heat. On Kickstarter, millenials allegedly weaned on apathy and irony are earnestly trying to save the world.
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This pretty much strikes me as the public sphere celebrated by Immanuel Kant as the paragon of enlightened society, updated to fit the requirements of the modern world. It is people using a common language and reason to proffer ideas, promulgate competing causes, agree and disagree, foment and undercut.
To go even further, the digital domain fulfills one of the basic promises of any organized religion: it offers a path to immortality. Paper fades and buildings crumble, but what you leave behind on the Internet is pretty much forever. It is a polytheistic religion, its gods bearing monosyllabic names like Jobs and Gates, Brin and Page. All — well, all who are able to afford it —can enter its exalted domain.
None of this, of course, is easy for my wife. Within three months of my daughter’s birth, a frequent and annoyed call resounded through the apartment: “Can you put the iPad away and play with the baby?” And sometimes, I have learned to shut the thing off and read “Goodnight Moon,” because it is true that man cannot sustain himself on Facebook “likes” alone. But there are other times when, for whatever reason, there is a tightness in my gut and only a few brainless minutes on Gawker will relieve whatever inchoate and irresolvable existential anxiety is its cause.
It could be the birth of my daughter and all it implies that turned my head to such thoughts. But no matter. Because I am certain that there is reason to fear. I take my cue from Pascal, who wrote in his “Pensées,” “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”
But by the grace of modern technology, I can fill at least some of those infinite spaces with the luminous procession of tweets and shares and updates – all of it inconsequential, all of it wonderful.