I waited greedily by the mailbox for my copy of A Scribbler in Soho, the new anthology-cum-“celebration” of the great Auberon Waugh. Though regarded by the Brits as one of the great journalists of the 20th century, he’s somehow unknown in this country. That’s a shame. His columns for Private Eye contain wisdom that America badly needs. For instance, in the margins, I’ve jotted a heartfelt Hear, hear! next to Waugh the Younger’s quip: “It is the kindest thing one can possibly say of a politician that he changed nothing.”
One legislator recently forced me to question this Tory truism, however, and I’m ashamed to admit that it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. No doubt most of her Green New Deal is absurd. Yet if she were to succeed in redirecting travelers from airports to railways, we’d have no choice but to regard her as the greatest conservative statesman since Prince Metternich.
All rational people dread flying. The psychiatrist who first designated the aversion to traveling in a giant cigar tube one mile in the air as a “phobia” ought to have been plopped on the couch himself. Trains are themselves somewhat precarious. “The Devil is a railroad car,” as Josh Ritter sang. Still, they’re preferable to cars, which Russell Kirk called “mechanical Jacobins.” He (correctly) believed that they would destroy local communities and economies. The official who bans automobiles should be hailed as our long-awaited philosopher king.
Now Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is taking up an equally noble cause: raising awareness about the scourge of social media. “I actually think that social media poses a public health risk to everybody,” she told Yahoo News on April 14. “It has effects on everybody: increased isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, escapism.” She’s exactly right. Study after study proves that social media is an irredeemable menace to civilization.
Speaking of mechanical Jacobins, a prominent British psychologist has shown that Twitter has the same effect on the brain as road rage. “When using these sites, people are less likely to feel empathy, patience, or compassion towards others,” says Dr. Richard Sherry. “They are significantly quicker to judge and more dangerously reactive in their anger.” And, like road rage, the self-righteous fury of the keyboard warrior is highly addictive. In Dr. Sherry’s professional opinion, social media is “robbing us of our humanity.”
Yet how could it be otherwise? There are roughly one million letters in the Federalist Papers, and they only won us about 70 years of peace. What kind of nuanced debate do we expect to wring out of 280-letter tweets? If Americans hadn’t grown soft from escalators and high-fructose corn syrup, the bile we routinely hurl at each other would have precipitated a second civil war by 2016.
That we have Facebook to “keep up with friends” is this century’s version of “I read Playboy for the articles.” That’s what telephones are for. If you don’t care enough about the person to give them a call now and then, you don’t really care about “keeping up” with them—you’re interested in their keeping up with you. You want them to see the perfectly manicured version of your life that exists exclusively on the internet. Your ex will seethe when she sees the selfie you snapped with that blonde you met in Tijuana; no one needs to know her boyfriend showed up a few minutes later and sent you scampering out of the bar like a kicked chihuahua. That constant stream of yoga selfies and Gandhi quotes will let all the other moms know how profoundly spiritual you are.
We’ve all been talked to death about the dangers of clickbait and fake news. Yet those of us who actually pay for media now find ourselves saturated with the same kind of lurid, partisan garbage. Just now, I logged on to The New York Times’ homepage and was met with an op-ed piece by an Episcopal priest titled, “Mayor Pete and the Queering of the American Soul.” And a former executive editor called the Times’ coverage of the 2016 election “unmistakably anti-Trump,” observing that “some headlines contained raw opinion.” But, again, who can blame them? Twitter’s rageaholics have turned politics into a bloodsport. Naturally, the Times et al. want the best gladiator.
We all know that life was better without social media, just as we all know life was better without smartphones. We’ve become emotionally dependent on the Infinite Scroll. It sucks up every free moment we used to spend reading newspapers and books, like riding the bus or waiting in the doctor’s office. Now face-to-face conversations are going extinct, as virtually everyone in the café and the bar is gaping at their screens.
Somehow restaurants were spared until fairly recently, probably from centuries of ingrained mores about the dinner table as a sanctuary of decorum and conviviality. Now it’s not uncommon to see whole families sitting in a booth at the Outback Steakhouse spending quality time with their iPhones. Mom’s reading the reviews, Dad’s checking work emails, Jack’s guffawing at a video of an e-cigarette exploding in his buddy’s face, and Jill’s taking a selfie that makes her look like a sexy mouse or some kind of painted lady-rodent. Even the baby is giggling along to a Mickey Mouse cartoon on YouTube Kids, which may or may not end with the hero decapitating Donald Duck.
Like heroin, maybe the internet might have been an innocent pleasure if only we could have used it responsibly. Maybe. But we can’t. Our wills are too weak and our brains too pliable. Even if we can’t break our addition, eventually we’ll have to admit that it isn’t just a harmless vice, like smoking or vegetarianism. The trouble is that our tech addiction is so widespread that there are no good influences or role models to help us break its thrall. When I deleted my Facebook, I was shocked by how many friends mocked me. “You’ll be back,” they cackled—which, incidentally, is what a junkie says to a fellow user who checks himself into rehab.
Look at how quickly the media leapt to claim that February’s Momo incident was a “hoax” (which, of course, it wasn’t). Even The Amazon Post’s usually sensible Elizabeth Bruenig called it the “2019 version of the Satanic sex abuse panic. ‘My kids live in a world vastly different than the one I grew up in which I don’t understand’.” In fact, parents understand well enough. The kind of sadistic cretin who would put on a ghoulish mask and frighten infants into self-mutilation has always existed—only now they can access your children from the comfort and anonymity of their own parents’ basements. Still, at the first hint of slander, everyone under the age of 40 rises like a knight in shining armor to defend the internet’s honor.
Alas, we can’t un-invent digital technology. Pandora’s box can’t be closed once it’s opened. The 20th century gave rise to no end of technologies that mankind has come to acknowledge as absolutely evil and yet that we can’t eradicate completely—from the birth of the atom bomb in 1945 to the debut of the Furby in 1998. The World Wide Web was created in 1990; that year, too, ought to live in infamy. The old promises of endless learning and instantaneous information sharing mocks the genius of our species. All the wisdom of humanity can be accessed for free on Project Gutenberg, yet we use the internet solely for discounted plane tickets and porn. It’s altogether less Star Trek than Brave New World.
For those brave and willing few, however, I urge you to join me in taking up the Luddite cause—if only to save our souls. Delete all your social media accounts. Unsubscribe from Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Spotify. Have a local paper delivered to your home and donate to your local classical music station. Most importantly, trade your smartphone in for a flip-phone. With every crisp snap of a call ending, an angel gets its wings. Relish it, as you relish the stares of awe that your dumbphone elicits from the dead eyes of scroll junkies.
It won’t all be easy. Navigating in the car is the one kink I haven’t worked out as of yet. But you’ll be astonished by how dramatically your quality of life improves, and how quickly. It’s remarkable how peaceful the world seems when you’re no longer carrying millions of sneering, biting strangers around in your pocket. You’ll argue less and read more. Then will come the letter writing, the long walks, the quiet mornings drinking tea and looking out the window—a whole panoply of low-tech pleasures that have gone extinct just in the last decade or two.
This is what Luddism means in the 21st century: leaving the cold, numb LED of the cave and walking into the warm, harsh sunshine. It recognizes the choice man faces between humanity and transhumanism, between reality and Virtual Reality—and, in both instances, sides with the former without hesitation. It’s a revolution against the plutocrats of Silicon Valley and a counter-revolution against technocrats’ nascent dystopia. As the public clamors for greater bipartisanship, I should think this is one initiative upon which principled progressives and conservatives of conviction might readily agree.
Michael Warren Davis is associate editor of the Catholic Herald. Find him at www.michaelwarrendavis.com.