upper waypoint

The Online Life, as Both Liberation and Imprisonment

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Studies find it's difficult to know whether using social media makes people sad, or whether sad people turn to social media, and then feel worse. (Image by Mark Fiore)

Excerpt from The Four-Dimensional Human by Laurence Scott. Copyright © 2015 by Laurence Scott. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

'The 'four-dimensional human' is my name for a person whose life is divided between the physical world and the digital realm, with all of its new expectations, wonders and emotions. I wanted to explore the tension between our anxieties over digital technologies and the idea that we can no longer exist as fully fledged citizens without them.
 --Laurence Scott

A study has recently suggested that our sleep hormones are being blanched from the light of our various nighttime screens. As a result we may sleep less well, and wake up more tired. Our phones are black on the bedside table, sleeping the sleep of the just, but their light swirls on behind our closed eyes, so the survey says.

We resolve, in the dark, to get an old-school alarm clock, and to keep the phones and laptops on the other side of the bedroom door. Everything must go. Except there’s no landline now, sitting venerably on that little table by the stairs. What if someone needs to call us in the middle of the night? That is a call we should take. And so the phone stays resting on the nightstand, undisturbed.

Oh, those studies. Despite them being everywhere, most of us, most of the time, see them out of the corners of our eyes; we catch them fluttering down the pavements, we hear snatches of them on the wind. Most of us have little inclination to spend much time at the coal face of raw findings. But we get the gist, and the gist is not good.

Fearing the toxicity of our gadgets is not a new pastime. On Christmas Day in 1991, my aunt, then in her late 50s, sat in her dressing gown with the electronic memory game Simon in her lap. On my request she was giving this new present a reluctant go, tapping at its four, big, colored buttons, as they lit up in sequence. I remember Simon flashing and bleeping with the ponderous, patronizing lethargy of its easiest setting. When it eventually caught her out she passed the plump little flying saucer back to me and straightened the skirts of her dressing gown. "They say all this electrical stuff will give us cancer," she remarked.As well as stunning our melatonin like a deer in the headlights, our screens are, it seems, less easy to learn from. While there is still much debate, there have been enough proclamations for these headlines to bypass our brains and go straight into our nervous systems. We worry for our concentrations, our ability to absorb information and to memorize. It is easy and understandable to feel that we are running our own labs, producing reams of intuition, if not data. A friend’s mother warned him not to keep his phone in his pocket--‘"You’re microwaving your testicles." No body part, or faculty, is safe. Meanwhile, studies about the health benefits of pet ownership glow with good tidings, year after year.


Similarly, like every post-1950s generation, when I was young I was told not to sit too closely to the television. But while the pastime isn’t new, the stakes have been raised by our latter-day habit of fondling such gadgets from the moment we wake to the clunk of the power cord and the click of the light. Simon, by contrast, knew his place. Now I take the television into bed with me, and it lies warmly, companionably against my stomach. A degree of lassitude usually accompanies this pose, but nevertheless I entertain an occasional thought for my organs beneath that spreading warmth, and I wonder how they’re taking to all of this, what grudge is accumulating night by night, and what they have in store.

The studies, alas, don’t stop with toxicity. Another narrative running alongside digital progress is one of emotional fragility, of depression and addiction. Science is regularly finding new ways that social media is making people sadder, though whether it is generating rather than displacing sadness is difficult to judge.

Regardless, the effect of this pervasive suspicion can be as enfeebling as someone repeatedly telling you how tired you look. Anecdotally, this discontent seems apparent enough. You know that the party is definitely over when conversation becomes a healing circle for Facebook sufferers. In the last year, my students have begun to mention the guilt of what they call "Netflix binges," suggesting that, with their mouths ever open to a menu of online "feeds," they’re imagining themselves as gluttons.

Unsurprisingly, then, a Lenten spirit is emerging as a counterbalance. Internet usage (the social media wing in particular) is now a staple denial on Lent’s annual blacklist. The restaurant game "Phone Stack" acknowledges our compulsions: In the game the diners pile their phones in the middle of the table and the first person to make a grab during the meal picks up the bill.

But from where does this feeling of taint arise, and how does it come to run in perfect parallel with our online enthusiasms and pleasures? When social media works, it feels so like the everyday conviviality and friendship of physical interactions that one could nearly forget to give it any credit. "Social media" as a formal topic is generally a troubled one. At such times it is characterized as an addictive substance, a depressant that needs to be managed and curbed. Everyone knows someone perpetually on the brink of quitting Facebook.

One hypothesis for this malaise suggests that the gloss people give to their crafted online personae creates an epidemic of inferiority among those of us watching them, as well as an ongoing amnesia toward our own canny uploads. This gulf widens when you consider where we do this watching: from the unglamorous heap of our insomnia, on the choked bus to work, the windows so fogged with kettled breath that you can’t even dream out of them. If this hypothesis is true, then when people log on to social media, they are apt to feel as though entering a joust, with their friends’ successes and wit, their general robustness for life, coming at them like lances. The overt and odious phrase "You win the internet"--deployed to congratulate an exemplary piece of digital behavior--does nothing to soothe suspicions of tacit competitiveness.

The inferiority theory is too easy to be the whole story, but nevertheless there is a strong and widespread feeling that our relationship with digital technologies has to be managed as a sort of chronic problem. Simultaneously we are rightly enamored with all the ease and enrichment they provide. The four-dimensional human thus regularly experiences two types of breathlessness. The first is due to the thrill of roving over the world, of dropping in on a sibling and their baby on another continent, of staying for five minutes and laughing the whole time, then swooping back into your skin.

The second breathlessness is not cheerful, and arises in the moments when all this liberty seems to come at the price of its opposite, when the sum of digital life feels more like a cage than a flying carpet. The ongoing narrative of toxicity and depression that shadows digital progress, in conjunction with a sense that this progress is both for the best and inevitable, creates a pervasive atmosphere of claustrophobia. The weather is often close in the fourth dimension.

A small signal of this confinement is how the phrase "surfing the internet" is used much less frequently now than in the old days. Rather than coursing the waves, we are simply, immovably, online. When multiple aspects of digital life are consistently figured as sources, suspected or confirmed, of bodily and psychological pollution, then our irreversible journey deeper and deeper into the network can, in one’s less hardy moments, feel like an imprisonment.


As a result, when sleep does come, the four-dimensional human begins to dream of escape.

lower waypoint
next waypoint
More Hot Weather Is Coming to the Bay Area. Here’s How Long It Will LastCalifornia’s New 1600-Acre State Park Set to Open This WeekCalifornia Has a New State Park, and It Is Now OpenIf Exploding Stars Made Music, They'd Sound Like ThisSan Francisco's Aging Infrastructure Ill-Prepared for Future Flooding, Report WarnsWhat to Know About Landmark Wildfire Bills Led by California CongressmanCalifornia Shows Where Insurers Would Need to Boost Coverage in Fire-Prone AreasCalifornia Researchers Develop Board Game to Teach Wildfire Safety. Can It Save Lives?Ever Wake Up Frozen in the Middle of the Night, With a Shadowy Figure in the Room?Schizophrenia: What It's Like to Hear Voices