A Denial-Of-Service Attack On Our Minds
The plague, the web, and our predicament
“The lesson for man is that personal happiness has very little to do with all this. It is possible to be unhappy and very adaptive,” - E.O. Wilson, RIP.
The last weeks of 2021 were a bit of a blur to me. A pesky sinus cold led to a series of asthma attacks, until the attacks simply ensconced themselves somewhere deep in my lungs and refused to budge. My oxygen levels dipped into dodgy territory; at-home Covid tests kept telling me I was negative, but the descent into a fortnight of viral fog just kept going. The sleep that came was deep and heavy and oblivious. When I woke, I wanted to go back to sleep.
And it very much felt as if I were not alone. In the city around me, Covid infection rates were reaching peaks that were far, far beyond any previous ones; restaurants and bars and gyms emptied; friends and acquaintances popped up on social media with varying reports of illness; and as I struggled round the block to walk my beagle, the streets were eerily empty and silent. And warm — so weirdly warm. Climate change adds anxiety to everything.
I wonder when we look back on all this — including the acrid anxiety of the first 1/6 anniversary — if we will properly remember just how surreal the last two years have been; and how hard it is right now to see clearly. Much of public and private life has been gutted of vibrancy and serendipity; children are trapped in their homes and screens and fast losing critical years of socializing and learning; older people have been even more isolated than they usually are; overdoses of incredibly potent painkillers are through the roof; murder rates have soared alongside inflation; cities have been looted and burned in the name of racial justice; and a president attempted to prevent a peaceful transfer of power by using mob violence.
And through all this plague-addled weirdness, the onslaught of new media has reached new levels of derangement. Our social dilemma has deepened, not lessened, as the plague has dragged on. The fitfulness and distraction and addiction of online life have metastasized just as actual living-in-real-life has evaporated. What else has there been to do? Where else to go but into the virtual chambers of mass distraction, rage and dislocation?
Alongside all of this, there is a wave of what can only be called passivity. Yuval Levin has been thinking through this accelerating social trend of withdrawing from life:
Excessive risk aversion now often deforms parenting, education, work, leadership, and fellowship in our society. It is intertwined with a more general tendency toward inhibition and constriction—with Americans walking on eggshells around each other in many of our major institutions, and with codes of speech and conduct becoming increasingly prevalent. We live in a time that is prudish yet not prescriptive—that stifles the public arena while denying us recourse to private arenas and tells us how not to behave without showing us how to thrive.
Again, the plague made this worse. In the past, plagues have interrupted regular life, turning it upside down. But Covid, and our response to it, has made living online even more all-encompassing than it was before; and the silos of information have actually reinforced — and are still reinforcing — themselves.
The core activities that help us become functional citizens and happy humans — the daily physical interaction with the actual faces and bodies of other people, dialogue and conversation, laughter and surprise and the practice of self-restraint — have been winnowed. We have less sex and watch more porn; we have more “friends” but fewer friendships; we marry less and have fewer children. We turn inward before we turn outward in every spare moment we have, gazing into the black mirror, alone together. Facebook is now pushing us toward the “metaverse,” where the real world we evolved in for 200,000 years disappears altogether — as if we can be happy without it. And the departure of Jack Dorsey is probably going to make Twitter even worse.
There was a chance last summer that what seemed like the imminent end of the plague could spur some kind of backlash against all of this online dysfunction, and in favor of, well, life. We’d all get out there and meet each other again; we’d repair the broken links; tend to the uprooted friendships; play and party and fuck again. But this canny virus adapted; and in its latest awe-inspiring mutation, is now close to endemic. Even those of us who are vaccinated and boosted, two years into this plague, may think twice before returning to full life, especially if we are vulnerable.
It’s in this cheerful mood that I read a new book by an old friend, Johann Hari. It’s called Stolen Focus. Like his previous books — Chasing the Scream, his history of the century-long war on drugs, and Lost Connections, on the social aspect of depression — his new book diagnoses most of us as sane and the culture we live in as mad.
The core thesis is this: Create a throw-away consumerist civilization, break families into ever smaller units, add a tech revolution, online addiction, economic precariousness, breakneck social change, endless work, and the collapse of religion and meaning, and yes, people will go a bit nuts. They’ll become depressed; they’ll seek out escapes through opiates or meth; they’ll disappear down rabbit holes of online fanaticism; they’ll seek meaning through work or fame; they’ll tear each other down with glee; they’ll lose the skills for family, friendship, constancy, discipline and love.
Now intensify the isolation with lockdowns. Segregate more thoroughly. Cover faces with masks. Force people to live even more persistently in a virtual world that makes us less connected in a deep way, but more enmeshed in the pathologies of anonymous mobs.
At one point in the book, Hari cites a former Google star, James Williams, who helped design some of the ways in which our attention is seized and directed by social media algorithms. Williams calls our current collective predicament something like a denial-of-service attack on our minds — what happens when they are swamped by such a dizzying array of information and distraction and stress that we simply have no choice but to shut down: “It undermines our capacity for responding to anything. It leaves us either in a state of distraction or paralysis … It can just colonize your entire world.”
Yes, it can, and it has: in our culture, too much is too with us too often. I wrote about this in 2016 while processing my own (failed) recovery from internet addiction. But the climb out of it is less clear than the slide into it, as I’ve discovered in the years since. Hari wants to ban “surveillance capitalism” — making it illegal for social media companies to favor addictive, maddening viral content; he wants a four-day week; he wants to liberate children from over-parenting. He urges us to turn off notifications; leave Twitter; say no to Tinder and Grindr; re-learn the art of reading books or mastering a craft or skill over time; to take walks phone-free so our minds can wander and make connections and remember things that matter. You remember that, don’t you? We used to call it living.
And I don’t fully know how to get back there. Hari is far more persuasive in diagnosing our attention crisis than in resolving it. I’m not sure how you legally ban viral algorithms, for example; or how you uninvent the web. So much of 21st Century tech is miraculous but we are early in its full adoption. The key, it seems to me, is that we make this tech adapt to our happiness, and not our worst addictive instincts. There’s a moment in the new HBO Max miniseries, Station Eleven, that has stuck with me. The show takes place after a massively fatal flu wipes out most humans. Twenty years’ later, a character tries to explain the web to someone born since it disappeared. You can find out anything, talk to anyone, read anything, be virtually anywhere on earth, she says. And yet it has not made us happy. And in some ways has made us mad.
I’m writing about this crisis this week because it seems to me to be a first-order question. How can we unscramble our fevered politics without addressing our psychological and spiritual dysfunction? How do we heal a culture we are constantly distracting ourselves from? How do we break out of passive narcissism into more active, sustaining social lives? I hope to revisit this, with your help, throughout the new year.
But I do see an immediate challenge: not succumbing to fear of Covid. It won the war for survival — the way HIV once did. But vaxxed and boosted, we can live with it, just as I live every day with HIV. So get out. Reach out. Let the children go back to school. Let them play again. Some will get sick, as children always have and always will. But we have tools to prevent the worst. Masking is prudent but we should do more and more to see each others’ faces. Let’s talk eye-to-eye again, as often as possible, wherever we are.
Second, let’s build new media institutions and online communities that act as breaks on insanity. Don’t police content; but defang the algorithms. Facilitate debate. Find ways to build space and time away from work. Read a book — on paper even. Take a walk. Forgive your friends. Be with your kid. Hold your spouse. Just allow yourself to be still and silent for ten minutes a day. Healing from Covid takes time. So does healing from the war against Covid.
Maybe it takes a couple of weeks of acute asthma to come back to the realization that taking a deep breath matters; that we will not fix our politics until we heal our culture; and we will not heal our culture until we have regained control of our technology, which is currently driving us mad. I have no idea where this year will end up, but I do know we have to start here. Recapture our focus. Calm ourselves down. Get out there again. Be with one another.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my constructive talk with an Israeli journalist over the Palestinian problem; my questioning of why Black Lives Matter isn’t touting a steady decrease in police killings; the beautiful face of a black officer killed on duty; several readers dissenting over my critical review of Biden’s first year in office; five notable quotes for the week; 15 links to other substacks we enjoyed this week; a movie-trailer mashup for a Mental Health Break; a window view of snowy Carolina for a reader’s mother; a Montreal view of quarantine; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
New On The Dishcast: Yossi Klein Halevi
Yossi is an American-born Israeli journalist and his latest book is Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. Following our episode with Peter Beinart last summer, many readers recommended Yossi as a guest to balance out the discussion on Israel. It’s a conversation I’m really proud of. We didn’t avoid any of the tough subjects; but we tried to see each other’s point of view. There is so much to admire about Israel, and yet its internal contradictions are not going away. I think this chat helps illuminate the paradox.
For two clips of my conversation with Yossi — on the “bizarre, tragic” history of Zionism, and on the intractable nature of the Israeli settlements — head to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to a bunch of reader commentary on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
Why Isn’t BLM Celebrating?
2021 was, in some ways, a banner year for the movement to reduce the number of police shootings in America.
(Read the rest of that 500-word item here)
Face Of The Week
Heather Mac Donald is outraged:
On Dec. 16, 2021, Police Officer Keona Holley was assassinated sitting alone in her patrol car at 1:30 a.m. in southern Baltimore. Travon Shaw, 32, a violent felon awaiting trial on a gun possession charge, shot her from behind... . A week after the ambush, Holley was removed from life support and died, leaving behind four children and a stricken police force.
She notes that at least 67 cops were killed by criminals in 2021.
Dissents Of The Week: How Bad Is Biden Really Doing?
Responding to my year-end assessment of the president, a reader writes:
Don’t blame Biden for the reinvigoration of the virus; blame the idiots who follow Trump and refuse to be vaxxed. We’d be done with the pandemic if they weren’t so self-centered.
Read my replies to that dissent and two others here. As always, keep the constructive criticism coming: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In The ‘Stacks
In case you’re new to the Dish, this is a feature in the paid version of our newsletter spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers topics such as Omicron, student debt, and phalloplasties. A few specific examples:
Nandini Patwardhan pokes holes in Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste.”
You can also browse all the substacks that Bodenner and I follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: email@example.com.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today
Happy New Year and see you next Friday.