The addict

Articles such as the one Andrew Sullivan has written (here) are true enough, and might have some passing effect upon the reader. “Yes, I am addicted to the Internet,” he may think to himself, for a moment before clicking the next links. (There are several within the article itself.) Or, he may be more spooked, and resolve the next morning to drink his first cup of coffee — or the first half of his first cup — before checking his Smartphone. He may find the mental quiet disturbing; he may even find it exhilarating. Then the alarm will sound, the panic kick in, from the back of his head. “What if something has happened?” He must take action. The horror of standing without crutches is intense. He must return to his click-bait before he crashes; before the silence becomes a cause of pain. The familiar screen flashes back before him, the sound in the ear-buds strikes up.

God has, in His design of the human metabolism, provided for this two-stage reaction. The first alone is the source of good proposal; the second is habit long-formed, and a war. It is technically possible to override the habit, but harder the longer it has prevailed. There was a flicker, not only of reason but nostalgia; a memory retrieved of a time before the addiction was acquired. If there was such a memory.

For children today, provided almost from birth with their hand-held devices, defeat is assured. They have, in a sense, been spiritually aborted, though thankfully not physically slain. They will have no childhoods; there will not be time. For the race is on, even before daycare, to get them plugged in, and turned on. (They must be consumerized, sexualized, politicized, made docile.)

Everywhere I see these little ones. From their strollers, they look up at mommy. She is on her Smartphone. It is not that they are unloved; but there is something else more important. They must learn to think tactically. Perhaps, when they get their own Smartphones, they can call her, on theirs?

It is this second stage in which there can be a moral confrontation. We must decide who is to be the boss of us. A demon has been installed as the pilot, by our own neglect and unacknowledged will. This is no simple matter of asking him to step aside; of shutting down the autopilot and taking back the controls. For demons, normally polite and soothing, become cheeky in situations like this. It will be a long and exhausting wrestle with the demon. (Why today? Why not leave this till tomorrow?)

Somewhere in that Sullivan piece, which contains perversities, but fewer than in most of his writings, we find his truest observation. For Sullivan was or is a remarkably gifted, nominally Catholic man. He has seen the looks in their faces: of the people locked into their screens. He has looked at himself, through others. (“Out of the eyes of babes.”) What is that look?

I have seen it myself all over, while walking and riding about the city; and moreover, I have seen it increase, dramatically, over the last few years. I would not call it a “zombie look,” for it conveys a certain alertness. (It is not like heroin: quite another drug.) The face is deadly serious. It is a look rather of anxiety, floating on a lake of melancholy. It is the “breaking news” look. The subject is deeply concerned. He could be in uptown Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. He “needs to know” what is happening downtown. Except, nothing is happening there. Rather, somewhere else in virtual space, his own fate is being decided. He must keep up with the latest developments. His attention is entirely fixed, on a place beyond his comprehension or control. Though his case is hopeless, he must decide his next move. His Facebook “likes” depend on it.

Clement of Rome writes about a state like this, in his (“first”) letter to the Corinthians: the “New Yorkers” of the generation next after Saint Paul’s. The state, I mean, of being without discipline, without self-control, and mentally “elsewhere.” Perhaps I will return to this tomorrow. But first I must get away from this machine.