Andrew Sullivan Is Still a Human Being

Based on: Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, by Edouard Manet (1863). Photo: Kim Dong-kyu (New York Magazine)

Andrew Sullivan, already a hero to me for his passionate rebuke of Donald Trump earlier this year, is back with another winner. In “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Sullivan chronicles the toll that Internet addiction — and in particular the ceaseless flow of information now available through smartphones — has taken on his life.

Sullivan was one of the Internet’s pioneers. His blog The Dish was a must read 10 years ago, updated at great frequency with intelligent musings on politics and culture.

Sullivan eventually grew weary of the toll of maintaining The Dish, which at peak (2007) he updated every half-hour. Back then — when the smartphone was essentially non-existent in the US— this was a breakneck pace. Today it’ is glacially slow, as it seems like news stories are updated every half-minute.

This is despite the fact that there is seldom anything of consequence to say until people have had time to reckon with the import of a story. We have traded speed for accuracy and thoughtfulness, and meanwhile are straining our necks to stare at our beckoning smartphone screens. All so we can gobble on enticing morsels of nothingness.

Or so Sullivan contends, and in large measure I agree with him. These days it is weird and unsettling to leave the house without a phone, even though humans did this without trouble for centuries (and I did so for decades). I do check Facebook or news sites at idle moments, knowing full well that most of the time not much is happening. I have almost walked into a tree while glued to the phone. All of this removes me from the beautiful natural world of birds tweeting (the original twitter) and leaves falling. Sullivan laments that he has so profoundly lost touch with such natural pleasures, that he is so shrouded in web fog, that he has ceased to be a fully human being.

Andrew. Andrew. Come now. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

You are still very much a human being — for only a mature individual with the capacity for self-growth and reflection would have written such a piece. I submit that Internet addiction is a real and scary thing, and that all of us could benefit from regular and purposeful detachments from all web-enabled devices. I also submit that Andrew Sullivan is brave, and fully human, for describing his own difficulties in doing so.

Note that I am proposing “regular and purposeful detachments” from our devices rather than a complete cessation. Our excessive attachment to these shiny baubles shows that humans will always possess the need for information. As this political season has shown, any old information will do — accuracy and rigor never did matter except for a few. Given this hard-wired need for information, the best approach is to manage it rather than to deny it. As with most things, the web-life is fine if handled with care.

And let’s be fair to the web. It’s not all bad and horrible. Sullivan’s brilliant article on Internet addiction relies on hyperlinks to multiple sources — Pew Research, the Huffington Post, and the Atlantic, among others. A printed page could not effortlessly convey the reader to the underlying sources. A reference list is possible in print, of course. But that requires somebody to make the physical trip to the library, or at least to make the interlibrary loan request, to track those sources down. These are real barriers to action, which the hyperlink (presuming the underlying linked source is freely available) completely erases.

It is not as though everyone will click on every link. I certainly do not. But to those of us who remember a time when this was not even possible, it remains somewhat magical.

As Sullivan notes, every new technology brings about fears of doom and gloom. The printing press was a radical thing at first. The Internet is even more far-reaching in its impact than the printing press, partly because it can latch onto addictive pleasure centers (Sullivan mentions porn twice) more than any other media we have ever invented. But we do not need to become impotent simpletons in the thrall of almighty tech. The web only has the power to erase our humanity if we let it.