my decade of (dis)contentment

“You know, technology wasn't invented by us humans. Just the other way around.”— Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Can Thought Go On Without A Body?”

I haven’t been able to really grasp the enormity of rounding out a decade. At all. I feel like a very different human going into 2020 than I did at the start of 2010, and when I think back on the most noticeable shifts in my life over the last ten years, one of the first things that comes to mind is social media. Specifically Instagram, and Instagram Stories. Not the fact of it, but the impact of being able to see so much at once, so many modalities of existence all around. How incredibly powerful it feels to make content out of my life. How much I love doing it, how much joy it brings me to parcel out bits of myself that feel useful, informative, beautiful, introspective. How it makes me feel like I’m part of a bigger tapestry and community. I marvel at all of the connections and collaborations and business opportunities that sharing myself online has brought into my life. How it feels when all of that lushness turns on me. How deep and grim the spirals can get, have gotten, will get.

Content (/kənˈtent/): As an adjective, it means ‘a state of peaceful happiness.’ As a verb, to satisfy someone. As a noun, it means a a state of satisfaction.  

In her very excellent new book, “Lurking”, Joanne McNeil observes that “at its worst and best, the Internet extracts humanity from users and serves it back to other users.” She also writes that the Internet didn’t just change us — it changed itself, drastically. It used to be a place to visit and now it’s an entity. A shapeshifter, a force capable of helping immaterial ideas and feelings become more embodied. This decade was the decade that the Internet transitioned from being a place I loved to visit to a place that seemed responsible for my moods, my mental state and my emotional body. How it became a source of joy, alienation and desperation on an eternal loop, and the dark realization that a natural side effect of my own sharing is that it may contribute to someone else’s joy, alienation and desperation in ways I can’t even begin to imagine.

Tara Brach, one of my favorite dharma teachers, has a part in her newest book, “Radical Compassion,” where she talks about the feeling that comes from assessing all of the abundances in your life — health, community, reputation, family — and still feeling like it’s not enough, that life is passing by and you’re missing something. It’s almost impossible to be serene and aware when we are exporting ourselves online, because we lose touch with the part of ourselves that allows us to realize the truth of who we are and remember our inner wholeness beyond the craving and wanting.

But can the Internet be responsible for these things? Can it make us feel anything? Our emotional reactions feel so built in, so inherent and innate to who we are as people that it’s hard to imagine they start anywhere beyond our bodies. In ‘How Emotions Are Made: A Theory of Constructed Emotion,” Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are concepts, that the human brain interprets data from the body a categories based on past experiences, the same was it organizes patterns of light or an abundance of color and transmits the information: window, paella, bouquet of flowers.  

Dr. Barrett isn’t saying the emotions we experience aren’t real — they absolutely are — but she’s curious about how they become real. How do we sort them into categories and agree, collectively, what they are? For example, she notes that we can understand anger only because we both have a relevant category that appears in it. They’re inherited, passed down, like social mores and values. Which is why different cultures have their own, deeply specific emotional concepts — like hygge, which for the Danish means feelings of comfort that burrow deep into the marrow, and saudade, a Portuguese word for strong spiritual longings.

Sounds are also experiences that only have meaning in particular contexts. For example, a tree falling in a forest only makes a sound if something like an ear that can hear is nearby to receive the changes in air pressure and translate it. Emotions also require a specially attuned perceiver. Evolution, Dr. Barrett writes, “has provided the human mind with ability to create another kind of reality, one that is completely dependent on human observers.”

In other words, emotions are cultural tools, and possible even a type of technology themselves, since our participation and responses can be observed, anticipated and potentially applied for industrial purposes and grander means.  Emotions are also a social reality and cultural tools.  Is it possible they’re business tools as well? You already know that the answer is yes. 

Shoshana Zuboff, author and Harvard Business School professor, calls this phenomenon “surveillance capitalism,” the idea that many aspects of the human experience are potentially available as raw-material supplies and targeted for rendering into behavioral data. The Internet is a site for aggressive extraction operations that mine the intimate depths of everyday life. Predicting behavior is big money, a vital currency, which I bring up as a means to talk about the reality that there’s a capitalistic incentive to inspire certain emotions when we use the Internet, in the interest in capturing more of our time in these feedback loops, and monetizing on the emotional states generated by them.

So when I say that social media has irrevocably changed my life over the last ten years, so has getting a handle on it. Specifically, raising my personal awareness around the responses that I have when I use it and trying to shift them, even as I continue to participate in it.  I suppose this newsletter is turning into an offering, of some of the tools I’ve adopted as a coping mechanisms to understand my emotions and be gentler with them.

Some of what helps me retain my awareness of the present moment are meditations by Tara Brach, in understanding the source of the wanting, and the importance of releasing it in the interest of happiness and fulfillment. Regularly consulting Black Radical Dharma and the texts of Thich Nhat Hanh, the wonderful books of Ram Dass, talk therapy, and taking part in strangely delightful social experiments like doing watsu in the East Village with Julie Tolentino. Devouring books like Jenny ODell’s “How to Do Nothing,” and Marlee Grace’s “How to not be always working.”  Raising my own bodily awareness through square breathing and long walks. By dancing! A lot. By myself and with others. Moshe Feldenkrais wrote in ‘Awareness through Movement’ that “it is much more difficult to be aware and in control of the involuntary muscles, sense, emotions and creative abilities,” so I’m studying the movement rituals of Ilya Parker, Anna Halprin, and reading the biography of Alvin Ailey.

What I’m looking forward to most in the next decade is tightening that grip on the impact that social media has on my life, on the paradoxical ability to live life more fully and also more treacherously and dimly. As adrienne marie brown wrote in “Emergent Strategy,” at this point, “we have all the information we need to create a change. It’s a matter of having the will to imagine and implement something else.”   I don’t really ride for Evgeny Morozov, but I really love this quote of his: “When I say technology is bullshit, I mean that there are better ways to talk about the future.”  

Here’s hoping that we find better ways to talk about the future and better ways to ask questions of ourselves, each other, and the services that influence us the most in the next decade(s) to come. ◓