Every other Wednesday in Cool Takes, S. D. Kelly offers a fresh reflection on hot topics by exploring the intersection of faith with high and low culture.
What is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand yet large enough to contain the universe? No, not a book, you dummy. A smartphone: the repository of the knowledge of a bazillion books, the universal brain. Like millions of other people I have a smartphone in my possession. My life has expanded in direct proportion to the time I spend staring at its screen, the edges of my life moving further and further away from the shoreline — the actual physical space I occupy. These days I am adrift in the internet, and see nothing but water. Solid ground, the boundary of place, is nothing but a hazy memory.It hurts everywhere. In Beirut, in Paris, in Syria and in Missouri, USA, in all the many, many places I forgot to name. It hurts in my house, in my heart. It hurts everywhere everywhere everywhere.
Much of the time I am adrift, and the water is packed with people drowning. They are all trapped inside my tiny screen, so I cannot help them. Meanwhile I am struggling to get back to shore myself, to the place where my young children are waiting for me, hoping that I’ll get offline and make dinner.
Everything about the internet is expansive, starting with my list of Facebook friends, where I’ve collected people along the way, pebbles picked up on the meandering passage of my life, following a trail that leads nowhere. The list of my friends is broad enough to include several self-identifying members of various tribes: the vegans and the fundies, the environmentalists and the gun nuts, the God-bless-America crowd and the God-damn-America ones too. I am tempted to cultivate my friends list, to tend it like a garden. I could pluck this one out and add this one in, until my newsfeed flourishes with correct thinking. Of general interest: I am now collecting friends — or followers, take your pick, as the terms are interchangeable — on other platforms: Instagram, tumblr, Twitter. You can even find me on Pinterest, where I occasionally pin the image of a moss-covered cottage or a book-lined study, the kind with deep leather chairs and no wifi, without a soul in sight.
The internet expands and the internet flattens. Online, one thing is the same as another. Why, just this past week all over the internet we were passionately engaged in conversation about a red coffee cup until we started talking about something else, in this case people dying in terrible ways. In the span of just a few days the stories, the posts, and the memes about the design of a red cup seamlessly morphed into stories, posts, and memes about people in pools of blood, gunned down while drinking coffee at a cafe or blown up while listening to music with friends. The images of bloody bits were followed by outrage and then posts about the outrage being the wrong kind of outrage, or not enough, or misdirected — I don’t know, I’ve lost track — and soon we were all talking online about our reactions to what happens in the world, the thing itself having disappeared, the details of whatever-it-is lost to history while we worked at crafting an overlay of text on image to share, one that will convey precisely what we feel about that thing that happened.
Online discussions about acts of terror, about religion, about policy, about the huddled masses become discussions about ourselves. And I don’t mean the collective self — humanity — but about myself. Just me. The posts come through the newsfeed in an endless torrent, the flood of information distills to a single, solitary point: what do I think about this? Do I agree with this news story, this image, this meme, this source, this rant, this reaction to the rant? Let me expound a bit and tell you in what way I agree, or don’t agree, and to what degree I agree or not. Allow me to post my own response to yours, so that we can cull out the losers, unfriend those of you who need unfriending — you know who you are. And by now I’ve forgotten what we are talking about. Is it the bombing? If so, where and which one? The one in the white country, right? Let me figure out which of you I agree with and then post about it, so I can find my people. The rest of you losers will have to find your own tribe. Cull your own herd into an ever smaller band of follower-friends until the only thing left in your newsfeed is yourself.
Because the irreducible minimum of making everything about me, about what category, or intersection of categories I identify with, is that ultimately I identify only with myself. A sense of shared humanity has no place on the internet. Instead we choose to spend all of our online time discovering how crass, stupid, vulgar and hateful everyone else is. It’s almost as though we are surprised, as though we didn’t know how awful people are before Facebook came along. Life is pain, Highness, Wesley says. Life is pain, and people suck. That is a paraphrase of at least fifty percent of the Bible and an even higher percentage of literature outside of Scripture, which leaves out the part about redemption.
The hard-working poet Warsan Shire writes,
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
It hurts everywhere. In Beirut, in Paris, in Syria and in Missouri, USA, in all the many, many places I forgot to name. It hurts in my house, in my heart. It hurts everywhere everywhere everywhere. I can’t make sense of any of it. Neither can you. None of us, save God himself, can make sense of it, and He does not often choose to enlighten us as to the particulars of why things happen the way they do.
Meanwhile Facebook and her lesser social media tributaries thunder on, offering a mighty torrent of information that floods every crevice in the public square, drowning out every living thing. You post and I post and here’s my reaction to your post: it makes me tired. But it’s nothing personal. The entire internet makes me tired, as I struggle to swim away from it and back toward the smaller life I used to have, one populated by people I could try very hard not to hate in person, an effort that really costs. And where, quite honestly, it seems more possible to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn in a way that is actually human, involving real flesh and blood. Flesh and blood, so easily given to suffering, to destruction — all the way across the world and right here at home, where my children are waiting for me to finally, for the love of God, get offline.