A year or so ago Andrew Sullivan shut down his blog. One of the first and surely one of the most successful bloggers was hanging it up. He had had enough.
Many people speculated about the reasons. Sullivan had been diagnosed with HIV, so the easiest explanation was that he was ill. It was true and false. It turns out that Sullivan had become an addict. He was not addicted to some banned substance. He was addicted to the internet, to the online world of bits and bytes, to the gadgets that streamed data into his mind all of the time. He was suffering from distraction and the distraction had been making him physically ill. It had alienated him from friends and family. He had become enslaved by the internet.
It was so bad, he tells us in New York Magazine, that he went on a meditation retreat in Massachusetts, the better to go cold turkey from his digital masters. All of this makes some sense. Perhaps it makes too much sense.
A year before, like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming. For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.
And his addiction was wrecking his health:
In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”
What’s wrong with this picture?
Simply put, in terms that everyone will understand, if an alcoholic tells you that the fault for his addiction lies in Demon Rum you will quickly see that he is denying any responsibility for his own behavior. It’s easier to blame Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs than it is to blame Andrew Sullivan. Better yet, it is easier to blame technogadgets than it is to blame the therapist Sullivan was seeing for some twenty years.
With merely his own information to guide us we learn that during the entirety of the time that Sullivan was becoming addicted, he was in treatment, in psychotherapy, with someone who has mercifully not been named. I note, with no special pleasure, that I have occasionally commented on Sullivan’s views on various topics and have found them disconcerting. I wondered how it could happen that so fine a writer and so astute an intelligence could have gotten caught up in the other birther conspiracy tale—the one in which Sarah Palin’s Down syndrome son had really been the child of Palin’s daughter, Bristol. It was a crackpot idea, unworthy of Andrew Sullivan. In time, I concluded that Sullivan had probably overdosed on therapy. He did not know when he had had enough therapy. I recognized the signs and the symptoms. Now, it turns out that I was right.
More right than I imagined. Not only did Sullivan overdose on therapy, but he learned the fundamental dodge that lies at the basis of any and all therapy that has any of its roots in the arid soil of Freudian thought. In blaming the internet and the gadgets for his addiction, he not only evades all personal responsibility for his behavior, but he says nary a word about the possible responsibility of the person who had been caring for his mental well-being for two decades. If psychoanalysis, as Peter Medawar noted, is one of the greatest confidence tricks of our time, one of therapists' greatest achievements is to evade all responsibility for the outcomes of their work. Happily Sullivan did not, as many long term patients have, end up in rehab, but he was certainly a wreck of a man. And he will continue to be so until he overcomes the tendency to blame it all on forces outside of his and his therapist’s control.
For the case of one man who did end up in a psychiatric clinic, see this post.
Sullivan was addicted to therapy. He allowed it to take over his mind, to push him back into his childhood, to mire him in the past, but to compensate by providing him with Wordsworthian epiphanies. If anything will get you out of your life and away from your friends, it is the enjoyment you gain from these mental spasms.
While hiking through the woods, he recalled his childhood:
I was a lonely boy who spent many hours outside in the copses and woodlands of my native Sussex, in England. I had explored this landscape with friends, but also alone — playing imaginary scenarios in my head, creating little nooks where I could hang and sometimes read, learning every little pathway through the woods and marking each flower or weed or fungus that I stumbled on. But I was also escaping a home where my mother had collapsed with bipolar disorder after the birth of my younger brother and had never really recovered. She was in and out of hospitals for much of my youth and adolescence, and her condition made it hard for her to hide her pain and suffering from her sensitive oldest son.
To him, this explained everything. It did not, dare I say, repair any of his relationships, but it made all of those years of therapy appear to be worthwhile. In therapy, that is the point:
I absorbed a lot of her agony, I came to realize later, hearing her screams of frustration and misery in constant, terrifying fights with my father, and never knowing how to stop it or to help. I remember watching her dissolve in tears in the car picking me up from elementary school at the thought of returning to a home she clearly dreaded, or holding her as she poured her heart out to me, through sobs and whispers, about her dead-end life in a small town where she was utterly dependent on a spouse. She was taken away from me several times in my childhood, starting when I was 4, and even now I can recall the corridors and rooms of the institutions she was treated in when we went to visit.
For all the time he had spent in therapy, for all of the pseudo-understanding of what had made him as he was, the result was that he was alienated from other human beings, to the point where he no longer recognized his own humanity.
Another triumph for therapy:
I knew the scar tissue from this formative trauma was still in my soul. I had spent two decades in therapy, untangling and exploring it, learning how it had made intimacy with others so frightening, how it had made my own spasms of adolescent depression even more acute, how living with that kind of pain from the most powerful source of love in my life had made me the profoundly broken vessel I am. But I had never felt it so vividly since the very years it had first engulfed and defined me. It was as if, having slowly and progressively removed every distraction from my life, I was suddenly faced with what I had been distracting myself from. Resting for a moment against the trunk of a tree, I stopped, and suddenly found myself bent over, convulsed with the newly present pain, sobbing.
In therapy, this is called a breakthrough. One suspects that it is not the only one that Sullivan had experienced in his two decades on the couch. One cannot but emphasize that it left him hollowed out, a shell of a man.
One might imagine that therapy, with its relentless pursuit of the past, would alienate you from the present. One would be right to think so. But, since therapy taught Sullivan to focus relentlessly on the past, it produced a habit of thought whereby he, in his effort to relieve both him and his therapist of responsibility, blames technology, blames the Protestant Reformation, blames the scientific revolution, and blames the Industrial Revolution.
He is not the first modern Luddite, but he takes up the reactionary cause valiantly:
Since the invention of the printing press, every new revolution in information technology has prompted apocalyptic fears. From the panic that easy access to the vernacular English Bible would destroy Christian orthodoxy all the way to the revulsion, in the 1950s, at the barbaric young medium of television, cultural critics have moaned and wailed at every turn. Each shift represented a further fracturing of attention — continuing up to the previously unimaginable kaleidoscope of cable TV in the late-20th century and the now infinite, infinitely multiplying spaces of the web. And yet society has always managed to adapt and adjust, without obvious damage, and with some more-than-obvious progress. So it’s perhaps too easy to view this new era of mass distraction as something newly dystopian.
Don’t you also wallow in nostalgia for the old days when people made things by hand? The days when people could make a chair or a table or their clothing by themselves. The days when they grew their own food and lived in a quiet pastoral community, the kind that Wordsworth longed for, but only found in a field of daffodils.
And, don’t you miss the days when children often died in infancy, when life expectancy was around 50, when people commonly died of famine and plagues? I am sure that you do. I am even more sure that you can see through the ruse. True enough, industrialization and modern technology has exacted a price—because life is about trade-offs—but it has also provided benefits. People who are depressed only see what we have lost. Apparently, Sullivan did not learn balanced thinking in his therapy.
GPS, for example, is a godsend for finding our way around places we don’t know. But, as Nicholas Carr has noted, it has led to our not even seeing, let alone remembering, the details of our environment, to our not developing the accumulated memories that give us a sense of place and control over what we once called ordinary life. The writer Matthew Crawford has examined how automation and online living have sharply eroded the number of people physically making things, using their own hands and eyes and bodies to craft, say, a wooden chair or a piece of clothing or, in one of Crawford’s more engrossing case studies, a pipe organ. We became who we are as a species by mastering tools, making them a living, evolving extension of our whole bodies and minds. What first seems tedious and repetitive develops into a skill — and a skill is what gives us humans self-esteem and mutual respect.
Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and “wasted” time in the achievement of practical goals. But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.
So, naturally he launches a riff on the badness of capitalism:
Indeed, the modest mastery of our practical lives is what fulfilled us for tens of thousands of years — until technology and capitalism decided it was entirely dispensable. If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices.
Sullivan does understand that the advent of industrialism and capitalism has damaged faith, has torn people away from their spiritual roots and has alienated them from their religions. Perhaps this was inevitable. Perhaps it was not. Keep in mind that the marketplace of ideas has been flooded with atheist tracts, the kinds that have called religion an opiate for the masses and that have assaulted it at every turn. For what it’s worth, Sullivan quotes prominent atheist Sam Harris as one of his friends-in-meditation. He might have seen that Harris is, intellectually speaking, a hack.
Sullivan does not blame the modern atheists. He does not blame Marx and Co. He blames modernity and capitalism:
And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.
The English Reformation began, one recalls, with an assault on the monasteries, and what silence the Protestants didn’t banish the philosophers of the Enlightenment mocked. Gibbon and Voltaire defined the Enlightenment’s posture toward the monkish: from condescension to outright contempt. The roar and disruption of the Industrial Revolution violated what quiet still remained until modern capitalism made business central to our culture and the ever-more efficient meeting of needs and wants our primary collective goal. We became a civilization of getting things done — with the development of America, in some ways, as its crowning achievement. Silence in modernity became, over the centuries, an anachronism, even a symbol of the useless superstitions we had left behind. The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.
He will recover his senses and his humanity when he accepts his own responsibility for his addiction and understands how his therapy contributed to it.