Finding silence online is difficult, but the pursuit is worthwhileSeptember 2, 2018
In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the latest novel from the ferociously talented writer Otessa Moshfegh, the protagonist sets out to sleep through an entire year to get far enough away from her life so that she might have a chance at rebirth. “Mine was a quest for a new spirit,” Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator says near the end of the book. “At the end of my hibernation, I’d wake up — I imagined — and see my past life as an inheritance.” She sets out on her project using a series of increasingly strong downers.
To me, the impulse is relatable; the idea that the silence of deep sleep — and that alone — can remake you is compelling, not least because it requires (seemingly) so little work. But sleep and rest are different, and it’s possible to have one without the other. Finding silence, meanwhile, can be even harder, especially in a world as digitally cluttered as the one we live in today. Relaxation is set in the year 2000 — just before the rise of smartphones, push notifications, and the ambient internet we, as a society, have come to rely on.
In 2000, according to a survey of a representative American population published in the journal American Association for Public Opinion Research, only 28.3 percent of respondents said they owned a personal cell phone. This year, according to Pew, 95 percent of Americans own a cell phone, and a full 77 percent of those people own a smartphone. Concurrently, the internet underwent its own series of changes: there was the rise of MySpace, the decline of forum culture; then Facebook and its real-name policy began to dominate the web, while Twitter saw its influence grow disproportionate to its size. Today, the descendants of those social platforms — Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp — have grown to define, for many, what the internet is. As more people have come online, the noise there has grown louder than ever. Escaping into silence has never been more difficult, or more necessary.
Finding and cultivating that kind of quiet online is difficult and worthwhile, although it’s not the same as just unplugging. Unplugging is what any number of treatises will advise you to do, but that isn’t exactly helpful: it’s more a luxury than a long-term, sustainable strategy. Paul Miller, who was a part of the founding editorial team at The Verge, left the internet for a year to get in touch with the real him; what he realized, as he wrote in 2013, was that “the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.”
Learning how to live sustainably in an always-online society is mostly about learning where your limits are, and learning how much connection you can handle before it’s time to withdraw. Knowing when to log off is the main skill to master — and this applies IRL, too, because while it’s easy to understand why you feel drained after random accounts brigade your Twitter mentions, it’s harder to recognize when the people around you become draining themselves. But more often it’s simpler than that: the fact that there’s a society-wide expectation to be constantly available means there’s no escape from the insistent pings and buzzes that accompany human connection, from friends to enemies to lovers and everything in between. And now we have more — and more persistent — friendships than ever, mediated by Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, which means that the alerts come more frequently than ever. The human brain has not evolved as quickly as its technology has; we are not built for this much connection, though we have, by and large, adapted.
What silence looks like online is hard to describe, because it’s necessarily individual: I have a different threshold than you, for example, for dealing with Twitter trolls or rogue Instagram commenters. But I do think there are a few rules. First, quiet is found in considered spaces — think @everycolorbot or #cloudtwitter. Second, if silence is found through listening, then peaceful places online are more generative (like Glitch or Codecademy, or one of my favorites, Twine) and, generally, focused on maintaining small, healthy communities (like Metafilter). Silence pools like the tides. It’s hard to find at high tide, and immediately obvious where the pools are when the tide are out.
Earlier this year, in his last column for Pitchfork, Mark Richardson, the site’s former executive editor and editor-in-chief, wrote a piece about seeking silence, and figuring out that a lot of silence is just the process of listening. In it he references a poem in David Berman’s 1999 book of poetry, Actual Air, titled “Self portrait at 28.” Here’s a bit of that poem:
It’s just that our advances are irrepressible.
Nowadays little kids can’t even set up lemonade stands.
It makes people too self-conscious about the past,
though try explaining that to a kid.
I’m not saying it should be this way.
All this new technology
will eventually give us new feelings
that will never completely displace the old ones
leaving everyone feeling quite nervous
and split in two.
We will travel to Mars
even as folks on Earth
are still ripping open potato chip
bags with their teeth.
Berman’s prediction has come to pass. The new world is chaotic and loud and unequal, and the old world is well and truly dead, as Miller found. The time Moshfegh describes, with its VCRs and dumb phones, has been lost, and the old expectations have changed; we’ve been split, successfully, into two. But Mars is still far away, no matter what Elon Musk says. The internet still has us ripping open potato chip bags with our teeth.