I spend most of my time studying and writing about climate change politics. It is often a paralyzing experience; not only is climate change a grave threat, but it is also one of America’s most polarized political debates.
I have come to appreciate that avoiding the easiest, most comfortable narrative—one that narrowly appeals to a particular social identity or political tribe—demands a special discipline. It requires clearing away competing noise, reserving time for deep reading and critical reflection. Only a focused mind can write truthfully about flawed assumptions, misplaced choices, and wrong-headed ideas, no matter their popularity or source. To take into account a wide range of factors and perspectives, and to reconcile differing visions of a good society, also requires an intellectual to stop worrying about critical responses or negative reactions to what he or she writes.
As controversial as it sounds, to become a voice for moderation in a culture of extremes, I realized that I had to quit social media and shift most of my reading back to print. Playing to the rawest elements of human nature, social media have done great damage to American politics, details Siva Vaidhyanathan in 2018’s Anti-Social Media, destroying our ability to think collectively, maintain sustained focus on pressing problems, and discuss productively across lines of difference. Artificial intelligence–driven platforms serve up a constant stream of news and commentary that reflects our existing biases and beliefs rather than content that might challenge them. Because it kidnaps our attention, the most inflammatory, most outrageous, and most catastrophic content is rewarded by social media algorithms, ensuring that it travels the furthest.
Because social media is a place where we find comfort in our tribal identity, posting, liking, and spreading ideologically affirming content about climate change generates social value, regardless of the source, quality, or veracity of the content we may be sharing. And it is not just social media; it is the online immersion itself that is the death of the climate change intellectual and writer, disrupting our ability to acquire the specialized knowledge and insights needed to write lucidly and sharply about the wickedly complex problem.
As the mental circuits devoted to constant online multitasking strengthen, the circuits used for reading and concentration erode, writes Nicholas Carr in 2011’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The altered brain consequently finds it more difficult to concentrate and read deeply, as numerous studies in subsequent years have shown (Loh and Kanai 2016). The price of zipping around on the web and social media is a loss in our depth of thinking, the essential trait of the intellectual and writer.
We Used to Be Human
By 2016, journalist Andrew Sullivan had spent the previous fifteen years devoting himself to writing a blog titled The Dish, an occupation that included posting multiple blog posts a day seven days a week, constantly tracking the latest online hot take or trending story. In a cover story in New York magazine titled “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Sullivan (2016) described himself as a “very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web.” But his obsession took a severe toll on his psyche, relationships, and health, he wrote. He could no longer read books, his mind and fingers “twitched for a keyboard,” and he suffered from chronic respiratory infections. Even though Sullivan spent every day alone at a keyboard, he felt as if he were in a “constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades—a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise.” Sullivan quit his blog and returned to long-form journalism, describing in the article his months-long recovery that began with a silent meditation retreat.
Two years earlier, Vox.com climate writer David Roberts (2014) described a similar experience. After a decade of writing online, Roberts found that almost all his time was now spent on Twitter, offering his 35,000-plus followers a steady diet of commentary. He felt twitchy if he wasn’t close to his smart phone, taking it with him to bed and even to the bathroom. “The core of my job—researching, thinking, writing at greater-than-140-character length—I could accomplish only in the middle of the night, when things calmed down [on Twitter],” he wrote for Outside magazine. “I spent more and more hours working, or at least work adjacent, but got less and less done.” Even when playing with his children, Roberts never felt fully present. His life as an online writer had mutated into full-time “life-casting,” as he described it, “a manic, full-time performance of Internet David Roberts.”
So he took a year-long sabbatical from Grist.org where he was working at the time. He read the literature on internet addiction, began a yoga practice, experimented with meditation, and took long walks outdoors. After several months, he was finally able to spend hours at a time absorbed in a single activity. “My mind felt quieter, less jumpy,” he wrote. When he returned from his sabbatical, Roberts was determined to live up to the “challenge of our age, in work and in life: to do one thing at a time, what one has consciously chosen to do and only that, and to do it with care and attention.”
The Addiction Machine
Recognizing the harm that social media is doing to our minds and to our collective ability to address climate change and other issues, in 2018 I began to experiment with various methods for minimizing the impact of social media on my life, even as I used Facebook and Twitter to successfully promote my ideas, articles, and new research.
In one strategy, I wrote out a very long password in a notebook, so that when logging on to Twitter, I had to do so with a specific intention and purpose in mind. On Facebook, I pared down my list of “friends” from more than 800 to just sixty-five, half of whom were relatives. But as Roger McNamee, a one-time mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, writes in his recent book Zucked, when we try to use social media minimally and mindfully, we run up against an impossible task.
Tech companies such as Facebook have recruited some of the world’s brightest minds to create an unbeatable chess game in which we battle artificial intelligence and algorithms with almost perfect information about us—machine learning employed with the specific intention to keep us addicted to distraction. So, in early 2019, realizing the battle that all of us are losing with great cost to our health, our careers, and society, I deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts.
At the time I was reading the Roman stoic Seneca, who as a busy senator and advisor to emperors still reserved time for the life of the mind as a prolific philosopher and essayist, influencing countless subsequent generations of intellectuals and writers. In 50 CE, he wrote in his essay on the shortness of life and how to spend it wisely: “No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied … since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply but reflects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it.” I eventually rejoined Facebook and Twitter, but my months-long absence had greatly benefited my writing.
A More Focused Life
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” observes Annie Dillard (2013) in The Writing Life. Today, I spend my days surrounded by the stillness of my office or within the sacred sanctuary of a library with no digital screen in sight, filling Moleskin notebooks with observations, engaged in the type of deep reading and immersion necessary to tie together insights and arguments into a fresh web of analysis.
Swimming laps at a pool or on a long walk, I often sort out the complexities of an article. During my daily yoga practice, I quiet the mind, easing the anxieties that afflict every writer. Culturally, we have forgotten that writing is not typing. There is a creative link between the intellect and the pen that I have rediscovered by writing the first draft of an article on a yellow legal pad, completely absorbed in the craft of composition. As I write, I no longer feel the gnaw of anticipation over how people might react on social media. My mind is free to follow the evidence, to scrutinize the most deeply held assumptions, and to dare readers to see clearly, reimagining what is possible.
- Carr, N. 2011. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: WW Norton & Company.
- Dillard, A. 2013. The Writing Life. Landmark Essays on Writing Process. New York: HarperCollins, 225–226.
- Loh, K.K., and R. Kanai. 2016. How has the internet reshaped human cognition? The Neuroscientist 22(5): 506–520.
- McNamee, R. 2019. Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. London: Penguin Press.
- Roberts, D. 2014. Reboot or die trying. Outside (September).
- Sullivan, A. 2016. I used to be a human being. New York Magazine 19.
- Vaidhyanathan, S. 2018. Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. Oxford University Press.