Hard words from the late Oliver Sacks in the latest New Yorker:
Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.
I work online: I couldn’t make a living if I didn’t spend my professional world in the digital world he describes. And I think Sacks might’ve been too zero-sum about some of the tradeoffs the new world creates:
A few years ago, I was invited to join a panel discussion about information and communication in the twenty-first century. One of the panelists, an Internet pioneer, said proudly that his young daughter surfed the Web twelve hours a day and had access to a breadth and range of information that no one from a previous generation could have imagined. I asked whether she had read any of Jane Austen’s novels, or any classic novel. When he said that she hadn’t, I wondered aloud whether she would then have a solid understanding of human nature or of society, and suggested that while she might be stocked with wide-ranging information, that was different from knowledge. Half the audience cheered; the other half booed.
They were both right?
I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth telling again: When I grew up in central Kansas during the 1980s, we saw the New York Times once a week. It was the Sunday edition, and it arrived by mail, usually on Wednesday. If anybody in town besides the local library took it, I’m not aware. But I loved to look at it sometimes. Aside from being a burgeoning news junkie, I loved to sit and look at the ads for Broadway shows. The paper beckoned to a world largely inaccessible to me at that time and place.
Now? I read the New York Times and Washington Post every morning, and check their updates through the day. Those top-level newspapers were basically once available to, mainly, a small and coastal elite. My ability to access them from Kansas transformed my life, my understanding of the world, and my career.
On the other hand, I spend too much time trapped in the digital world.
The key, I think, is to try to find balance. I’m not good at that. But one way I can start to achieve it – or, start again, as I’ve done this from time to time – is to take a digital sabbath from time to time, ideally once a week.
That means no computers, no phones, no iPads. Time should be spent with people, or with books, or doing activities that require one to look up and around and see the world.
Saturdays will work best for that, I think. So, I’m going to try to go dark starting this Saturday. Maybe take a walk, or play a board game with my son. Balance is elusive in this world, but even moreso if you don’t at least try