Social Anxiety: Why You Didn’t Have A Life In 2014

When you live your life online, you’re always on the clock.

December 22, 2014

A few weeks ago, I walked into a friend's living room and discovered a strange scene. Eight people were sandwiched together on a wrap-around couch, polishing off a luxurious dinner of steak and pasta laid out on a big wooden table. The scene felt cozy, like Thanksgiving—only everyone was facing the room's gigantic TV, watching their own mirror image captured via a small spherical camera placed atop the TV screen. Someone had decided to broadcast the dinner party on Playstation Network Live, an internet-based service that enables users to stream their video game activity in real time and invite others to watch and offer commentary in a chatroom. The dinner party doubled as a premise for a conceptual PSN channel, its name a tongue-and-cheek acknowledgement of the the online trolls who'd inevitably be dropping in: “Just A Dinner in America: A Place for Open and Polite Discourse."

The chatroom conversation, comprised of around 150 PSN users, was largely tamer than I expected. Aside from the odd offensive comment—some regarding the physical attributes of the different females in the room, others about how we looked like hipsters, or Jews—a lot of users were just posting their phone numbers, trying to get us to call them. Eventually, it became hard to focus on anything in the room other than the TV screen; we were essentially sitting in front of a large, moving group selfie, and although we were all exchanging casual banter with the commenters in the room, I found myself transfixed by my own onscreen likeness. It's endlessly absorbing to see how you appear in others' eyes—the same way it's easy to get caught staring at your own face on Skype—and although I was just sitting in a chair, I couldn't avoid the feeling that I was somehow "performing" the act of sitting in a chair, more like an actor at a theatrical rendition of a dinner party than someone actually attending one. Everything that happened in the room only "mattered" in the sense that it produced a corresponding event on screen, and when the number of people viewing the channel started its inevitable decline, the unspoken consensus in the room was that the broadcast was no longer necessary, and our host switched off the camera.

The dinner party experiment was really just an exaggerated version of something we do all the time: we're always projecting ourselves onto the internet. I'm especially guilty of this—mostly because of my activity on this very website, but also because of the numerous apps and social media platforms I routinely check throughout my day. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is check my text messages, then my Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; at day's end, my "winding down" routine looks pretty much the same (with the addition of Netflix, naturally). I sleep with my laptop in bed with me and sit all day in front of a screen, in a room full of other people who are also interfacing with screens.

Of course, there were plenty of events, news stories, and cultural artifacts that "made my year" (FADER's 2014 Listmania extravaganza plots many of these), but the number one "happening" in my life this year was, undoubtedly, the internet. Aside from a few days when I purposely decided to unplug, I was constantly using it to absorb and create media, order cabs, send people money, get directions, and meet up (or cancel plans) with other people. The myth of smartphones is that they're supposed to make life easier, but they've also turned every possible facet of life into an engagement with the information marketplace, which is by extension an economic marketplace, one increasingly reliant on our eyes, clicks, and consumer data. In a world where there is an app for everything, it becomes harder to isolate a single moment of waking life that is not, either knowingly or not, "productive" in the economic sense.

"In a world where there is an app for everything, it becomes harder to isolate a single moment of waking life that is not, either knowingly or not, 'productive' in the economic sense."

Recently, a coworker recommended 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, a book written by Jonathan Crary, a professor of modern art and theory at Columbia University. The book discusses life's progressive integration into the ceaseless operations of 24/7 capitalism, with the premise that sleep—and the period of necessary, restorative inactivity that it entails—has become humanity's last defense against total market subjugation. It opens with a chilling anecdote about how our government subsidizes studies on the brain function of a sparrow, which is able to go without sleep for days at a time, and charts the West's historical evolution from a world governed by seasonal and diurnal rhythms to a world that "never sleeps."

Television was a technological development that extended the sphere of market participation beyond traditional business hours, but the internet, it would seem, has effectively rendered "off time" a thing of the past. "One of the goals Google, Facebook, and other enterprises (five years from now the names may be different) is to normalize and make indispensable […] the idea of a continuous interface—not literally seamless, but a relatively unbroken engagement with illuminated screens of diverse kinds that unremittingly demand interest or response," Crary writes. "As the opportunity for electronic transactions of all kinds becomes omnipresent, there is no vestige of what used to be everyday life beyond the reach of corporate intrusion. An attention economy dissolves the separation between the personal and professional, between entertainment and information, all overridden by a compulsory functionality of communication that is inherently and inescapably 24/7."

I grew up listening to songs from the Broadway musical Rent, which preaches, somewhat cheesily, that the best way to measure a year is to measure in love. I'm not sure what sort of love Jonathan Larson meant by that—romantic love? family love? friend love?—but I've always taken the sentiment of the song to mean that it's the personal side of life that matters the most: the quality of your relationships with others and with yourself, the experiences of mutuality and fellow feeling that temporarily outshine and disrupt our more self-interested tendencies. What was sad about the dinner party experiment is that is that it took a potentially meaningful experience—a period of sharing between friends who were happy to conclude another long, hard working week—and turned it into just another piece of "content," another opportunity to "draw eyeballs," another means of participating in the market. It functioned as an example of how maintaining a "private" or "personal" life is increasingly difficult, but what truly made the experience scary is that we were the ones who wanted it to happen, the ones who set up the dinner table and switched the camera on.

It's tempting to place the blame of this social phenomenon on our employers or some abstract notion of "the man," but it's worth considering how much of "offline" life's impoverishment is fueled by our increasing inability to conceive the value of our own lives outside an economy of likes, follows, and retweets. "Because one's bank account and one's friendships can now be managed through identical mechanic operations and gestures, there is a growing homogenization of what used to be entirely unrelated areas of experience," Crary writes. "At the same time, whatever remaining pockets of everyday life are not directed toward quantitative or acquisitive ends, or cannot be adapted to telematic participation, tend to deteriorate in esteem and desirability. Real-life activities that do no have an online correlate begin to atrophy, or to cease to be relevant. […] Because of the infinity of content accessible 24/7, there will always be something online more informative, surprising, funny diverting, impressive than anything in one's immediate actual circumstances." To go one disturbing step further, my friends seemed to find the online image of our dinner party infinitely more fascinating than the real-life get-together we were experiencing.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we chuck our iPhones and pretend as though technology does not exist. As a journalist (which has always been a 24/7 career), I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't be able to survive without one. Furthermore, I'll always maintain some faith in the internet's power to make the world a fairer, more equitable, and easily navigable place. Still, as we enter into the holidays, what many of us are fortunate enough to experience as a period of introspection and rest—an uber-consumerist time of year, yes, but also a dark period, one that represents the periodic disruption of the "regular" functioning of the market—I thought I'd use this column as a reminder to cherish these fleeting opportunities for "non-productive" personal time. If we hand every inch of our lives over to the information marketplace, we won't have much of anything left for ourselves—or the sense that we ourselves have any innate value outside of it.

We have to insist, through actions and words, on the continued existence of the "personal," lest we want life to turn out similar to the dystopian universe portrayed in the second episode of the the recently added-to-Netflix British television show Black Mirror, "Fifteen Million Merits." The episode submerges viewers in a humanity divided into classes of content consumers, content creators, and the unfortunates who clean up after them. The consumers—seemingly the largest class of people in this fictional society—sit on exercise bikes all day long, earning "merits" (the reigning form of currency) for the amount of miles they pedal while simultaneously disbursing "merits" for the constant stream of audio-visual content they consume on screen, including whatever compulsory programming they want to skip over. Every quiver of every eyeball has been monetized, and so has every possible corner of human activity, right down to brushing your teeth. Everybody sleeps alone in cells surrounded by video screens, and the only hope anybody has of escaping is auditioning for an American Idol-type show called Hot Shots, where successful contestants are offered a chance to "switch over to the other side" and become professional entertainers.

The world of "Fifteen Million Merits" is a world devoid of private life; when everyone is on the clock at all times, it becomes impossible to try to measure one's life in love. Still, the protagonist of the episode does end up falling for someone: a young woman who sits on a nearby exercise bike. In what is perhaps the only remaining gesture of self-sacrifice available to a person in this dystopia, he hands over to her almost the whole of his life savings (specifically, "fifteen million merits") so that she can audition on Hot Shots. Sadly, his attempt to help her goes awry; he snaps, and somehow ends up the host of his own anti-establishment video channel, offering up a continuously broadcast stream of "real talk" about how messed up society has become: "15,000 new dopple wardrobe options, launched last week alone," he says in one transmission. "Which effectively translates to 15,000 new ways to kill time in your cell, before you explore an afterlife, which doesn't exist anyway. But with any luck it'll take your mind off those saddle sores, eh?" The vision of 24/7 capitalism we experience in this Black Mirror episode is certainly a nightmarish one, but it seems to suggest that the personal is still something worth fighting for—even if the fight comes in the form of yet another piece of content.

From The Collection:

Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety: Why You Didn’t Have A Life In 2014