The Internet Is Killing Happiness. Can We Stop It?

Our hyper-connected world is wondrous in so many ways — yet we’re all burned out, worn down and miserable. Can we find joy in a time of perpetual disruption?
Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare

Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare

So, I’ll admit it: I was looking at my phone the moment my two-year-old fell off a stump at our little Fairmount playground and bashed his forehead on a log.

For the record, I wasn’t scanning Instagram or ordering from Amazon; I was texting my husband about dinner. I emphasize this distinction only because it’s what I repeated to myself over and over as I lifted the ice pack to watch the nickel-size lump on my son’s baby skull swell to a goose egg: At least it wasn’t People.com.

Also, I thought, as my kid chomped an ice-cream bar and the knot on his forehead turned a sickly purple, kids fall all the time. Heads get bashed. I’m no helicopter mom. Even without the phone, I wouldn’t have caught him. And so on. Eventually, I let it go.

Several months later, I read (on my phone) the New York Times headline “A Toddler Dies as Her Mother Checks Her Phone, and China Wrings Its Hands.” The pair were walking through a parking garage in Yueyang; the two-year-old wandered in front of a slow-moving car while her mother was immersed in her phone. The whole incident played out in eerie slow motion in the grainy, bluish footage from a surveillance camera. It was horrific, and it was no surprise that immediately after, according to the story, there was “an outpouring of anger” on China’s social media about the dangers of being obsessed with one’s phone. In America, too, Facebook commenters were appalled, contributing their usual mix of invective and emoji.

Me? I thought back to the goose egg, and got chills.

SOMETIMES I THINK ABOUT giving up my phone — just tossing it into the Schuylkill and never looking back. I’ve seen the research; I know I’m on it too much for my own good. (Who isn’t?) We know from countless studies that happiness rests in human connection; we also know that our phones often get in the way of that. Problem is, I’ve come to believe it’s not the phone that’s the trouble, nor its apps, nor the Internet as a whole, but really the way of life all those things have put in motion. And a whole lifestyle is harder to change.

But I should at least try, I think, since lately I’m very distractible. Also, I work when I’m not supposed to be working, and when I’m supposed to be working, I feel sudden irrepressible urges to check my bank account. I take conveniences like Amazon Prime and Uber and Caviar and, of course, Google so much for granted now that I’m often impatient with offline life’s pace. I read so much breaking news throughout the day that at any given moment I’m anxious or angry or sad about something I just read, and I live under a cloud for hours each time one of my Facebook friends reveals himself to be something terrible, like a bigot or a Crossfitter. Sometimes I go a little crazy. Last summer I threw away $40 worth of sunscreen because I kept reading online that the reputable, non-cheap brand I’d been using on my son since his infancy contained ingredients that had now been deemed “unsafe.” I didn’t want to throw away the sunscreen that just days before had made me feel like a good mother instead of a bad one, but, well, once you know something, you can’t unknow it. And these days — not to brag — I know pretty much everything. (Who doesn’t?)

That’s one thing nobody warned us about before life (and commerce and car rides and sex and food) went digital, before we were all so thoroughly disrupted: Knowing everything all the time isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Actually, no — someone did tell us that. It was God, in the Garden of Eden. But, well, we bit the apple anyway, que sera sera, and here we are. Or haven’t you ever contemplated that logo on the back of your iPhone? Before Steve Jobs was a Buddhist, he was a Lutheran. Just saying.

But like it or not, ours is a looped-in world (1.8 billion of us on Facebook!), and — though the current political climate might indicate otherwise — there’s no glory in willful ignorance. And in any case, the issue here isn’t just information overload, or phone addiction. Nor are we just talking about what the Internet is doing to our brains (making them less focused and less imaginative, some research suggests), nor what disruption is doing to our jobs (Amazon plans to open a grocery store; no cashiers needed!), nor even how the word “dystopia” involuntarily springs to mind when you read about, say, robots caring for the elderly. No, the issue is the sum total of all of these things converging on us all at once, in one extremely anxious moment in time. The issue is our current and future happiness.

How do we know things are amiss? For starters, there’s a whole new genre of academia and journalism (and God knows how many tweets) devoted to grappling with one sort of existential, tech-related malaise or another. We’re talking dozens of books and almost daily headlines with interconnected themes: telling us people are quitting Twitter. Telling us we need Twitter for our jobs. Telling us social media is bad for our careers, and that our filter bubbles are sowing the seeds of the next American civil war. Uber devotees are suddenly denouncing Uber, and Uber-like food start-ups, and the convenience economy Uber helped launch. They’re wondering if disruption is good or bad, disrupting disruption, suggesting that the Internet’s founder never envisioned this world, that in fact, THE INTERNET IS RUINING EVERYTHING. (That last one is from an actual New York Times headline.)

Clearly, it’s nuts to suggest the Internet is ruining everything. I mean, it’s ruined a lot of things — polite disagreement, news-papers, high-school reunions — but the Internet is also education, and blankets overnighted to Syrian refugees, and a voice for the voiceless, and seeing that your college boyfriend, the one who dumped you the night before graduation, got fat. The Internet is a miracle.

It’s not nuts, however, to point out that for the past decade, we’ve been sheep when it comes to technology. Or guinea pigs, anyway. We’ve been mainlining huge doses of a drug that’s had zero clinical trials and whose side effects we’re only starting to see, as newer and faster versions of the drug continue to flood the market. And then we take those, too.

It’s no small wonder there’s increasing unease out there. That in the business world, in media and in our personal realms, our exhilaration at the new and cool is tempered more and more by a quiet trepidation over what fresh idea will make the old one obsolete, what new convenience we’ll find we suddenly can’t live without, whether the benefits of our increasingly digital lives outweigh the drawbacks. Not that the contemplation matters. Not that all the rumblings of what price technology can change the fact that the current has officially shifted, that it’s carrying us ceaselessly forward, and at an ever-quickening pace.

And so we beat on. iPhones in hand, of course.

WAY BACK IN 2011, author Nicholas Carr had some alarming news to report about the Internet. All of that time we spent surfing the Web, he informed us, was killing our ability to concentrate and reflect on information the way man evolved to over millions of years. It wasn’t so uplifting, his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. But then, readers likely guessed they weren’t in for a thumbs-up on digital life once Carr noted — in the prologue! — that the computer “is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.”

Naturally, some people took issue with his characterization of the Internet as “a form of human regress.” You can see where naysayers are coming from. Before Carr’s computer was making slaves of masters, philosophers were decrying the dangers of the printing press; Thoreau was gazing at Walden Pond, wondering whether we ride the railroads or the railroads ride us; the Buggles were warbling that video killed the radio star. As long as there’s been technological progress, there’s been angst over the implications of that progress, yet life has always moved on, often for the better. Or at least with some great new perks.

Here’s what’s different about today’s angst: The speed at which these changes are coming at us is unprecedented. Never before has so much happened so quickly. Just ask Josh Kopelman, who is, according to Forbes, one of the 10 best tech investors in the country. Kopelman’s University City-based VC firm, First Round Capital, was an early backer of Uber, Blue Apron, Birchbox and Warby Parker, to name just a few big-time disrupters. He’s also now the chairman of the board of Philadelphia Media Network, which oversees the Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com. Nobody knows disruptive technology better than Kopelman, and he suggests we consider the telegraph.

“The telegraph was invented in 1837,” he says cheerfully. Even on the phone, Kopelman exudes the buoyant, brainy charisma of a TED Talker. “It took 40 years to go from the telegraph to the telephone, and then 50 more years to go from the telephone to television.” These were obviously major disruptive forces, he says. “But that disruption happened in isolation, with a long period of time for people to process it. What you’re seeing now is continued innovation; it’s happening in years rather than in decades.” Just look, he says, at the trajectory of popular adoption, from the personal computer (1984) to the Web browser (1994) to the smartphone (2004). “It’s been an unrelenting pace.”

This pace is the focus of journalist Thomas Friedman’s recent best seller Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. In his so-called “age of accelerations” — a.k.a. now — technology, globalization and the climate have begun to change at such unprecedented rates that we have to learn (quickly) how to cope with it all. Our happiness, economic health and, well, world depend on our learning how to cope with it all, he says.

I’d argue that in addition to the pace, the pervasiveness of change is eating at us, too: on every platform of life, so many grand entrances, so many inauspicious exits. And you don’t have to look far. It’s not just that your new phone will be a relic next year, but also Macy’s closing 100 stores, including four in the region. It’s the end of travel agents, and also Tower Records on South Street and Borders on Walnut and Marmelstein’s, the Fabric Row institution that shuttered in 2015 after a century in business. (“Custom takes weeks,” owner Judy Buchsbaum told the Inquirer. “[People] want everything faster.” And anyway, why peruse fabrics in Queen Village when there’s Pinterest?) A.k.a. Music and City Sports and who knows how many indie retailers have gone belly-up in recent years, not to mention City Paper and half your favorite periodicals. And yes, capitalists, that is the way of business, and life. But when Harvard professor Calestous Juma looked into why societies reject new technologies, he found that it wasn’t the newness people feared, but the loss. We liked Marmelstein’s. It helped make us us.

“Part of what makes us anxious is that we can’t even put our finger on all the ways technology is screwing with our sense of normalcy and stability,” offers Jessa Lingel, an assistant professor at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication. Businesses leaving. Not knowing what’s next. Keeping up with the news. Status updates. Gadget obsolescence. The whole ball of wax. “It all contributes to the sense that nothing is stable and everything is changing. There are all these layers that cause anxiety.”

Then again, laser-focus on the bad stuff — like anxiety, like loss — is actually one of the pitfalls of living in this accelerated age, Kopelman suggests: “The negative consequences of technology get a lot of attention, while the good ones are quickly — almost immediately — taken for granted.” This is true across the board, he says, from the miracle that is FaceTime (“We just expect it now, to be able to chat with anyone all over the planet, face-to-face!”) to the Internet (“You can be sitting on a train and have more information at your fingertips than the Library of Congress had in total 30 years ago!”) or even E-ZPass (“You used to wait for 20 minutes to pay a toll, and now you fly through!”).

“I’m not trying to run away from the fact that as technologies change, every area of our lives is impacted,” he says. “Change isn’t without pain.” Kopelman means pain for those real and proverbial toll collectors; he’s not blind to the effects of disruption on the disrupted. (Hey, he’s helping steer the Inky.) Nevertheless, “I wouldn’t choose any moment in history to live in but this one. It’s clearly not perfect. There are clearly some people being left behind, people who will need help moving from one livelihood to another. But when you think about the standard of living, the opportunities we all have, education, medicine … I’d be hard pressed to find a reason to pick any moment earlier than today.”

This isn’t a surprising perspective from a tech tycoon, but it does raise a good point about nostalgia. Haven’t we just seen what chasing after life’s past simplicity (often imagined) and excellence (often exaggerated) can do to a society? Whether you think I’m talking about Making America Great Again or the Full House revamp on Netflix, you’re right, and I think even in this fractious time, most of us can agree that trying to re-create the past isn’t the answer.

And yet wanting to escape some of the fallout from this Age of Accelerations feels valid, especially when you consider just how much the world is still reeling from all the change. As Friedman points out, it’s a problem that society hasn’t yet figured out how to keep up with technological change in terms of regulations and morality. (Is cloning okay? Or gene editing? Who’s responsible for accidents in self-driving cars?) Add to that the trouble that we, as individuals, are suffering not just from disruption, but from “dislocation,” which is described in Friedman’s book by Craig Mundie, a former strategy guru at Microsoft:

“Disruption” is what happens when someone does something clever that makes you or your company look obsolete. “Dislocation” is when the whole environment is being altered so quickly that everyone starts to feel they can’t keep up.

Sounds a lot like the anxiety Lingel describes. And what’s more, Friedman informs us poor disrupted, dislocated souls living in the now, nothing will be slowing down anytime soon. In terms of technological advances still to come, we can’t even imagine. As one engineer tells him, “We’re still in the era when cars had fins.”

“HONESTLY, I’M JUST fucking tired,” my hairstylist tells me.

When you think disruption — or even dislocation — you don’t automatically think hair salon (at least until someone launches an “Uber for hair colorists” in Philly), but if you think about it, there’s the rise of Yelp and Google reviews, of Instagram, Facebook, Groupon, and any number of business apps designed to simplify the day-to-day. My stylist, Adrienne Rogers, is also the co-owner of Hush Salon in Old City, so it’s on her to incorporate all of those things into her business. And she has.

There’s real value in the online reviewing, she says, and she absolutely loves her phone, which she wears on a long leather strap like a cross-body purse (more stylish than it sounds). She’s no Luddite; her Colorista app has replaced an intricate filing-card system she once had for keeping colorformulas: “I can type faster than I can write; it’s much easier to find client cards this way.” The truth is, she says, “I love all this. But I hate all of this at the same time.”

The hate is related to the learning curve that never quite seems to level out. “The question is always, how do I fit it all in and stay relevant and evolve with the marketplace?” she says. Whether you expect your hair salon to have a killer Instagram account is beside the point; no business owner wants to look like she’s behind the times. “There’s this constant worry — and this is new to me — that we’re missing something, that we should be doing more on top of all we already do with our clients and the business. Always more. It’s exhausting.”

If you ask me, exhaustion is the theme of 2017. Everyone I know is some level of drained right now, talking about wanting to switch to part-time hours, or quit social media, or simplify life Marie Kondo-style, or just stay home and watch Netflix this weekend. Aren’t we all worn to a nub by a president who’s a pathological tweeter? By ISIS recruiting teenagers on Snapchat? By friends who are still (still!) playing Candy Crush? Contemplating the scope of the damage nearly saps one’s will to log on.

On a professional front, too, digital exhaustion feels deeply depleting — in part because adapting isn’t an option but a mandate, particularly in disrupted industries. How can I begin to explain, for example, the state of constant wound-up-worn-downness that is life for a journalist in the Internet age, dealing not just with the traditional stuff — sources, wording, deadlines — but also SEO and Google Analytics and endless rounds of layoffs and more endless meetings about new visions? Then there are click-through rates to contemplate, and the empty (but popular) BuzzFeed listicle, and the fake-news phenomenon, and five-posts-a-day, and skyrocketing numbers of commenters who write things like “Just go die” after you pen a short opinion piece suggesting that maybe Wawa isn’t as awesome as your husband thinks it is. Or, as BuzzFeed might put it: 10 Reasons Journalists Drink So Much.

The New York Times put it differently, back in 2010: “In a World of Online News, Burnout Starts Younger,” they said. No shit, I said. In case you’re wondering, I’m 37.

Anyway. One can’t blame all this existential weariness on the Internet, but I do think life in our noisy, hyper-connected digital age has created a sizeable chunk of it. So does blogger Andrew Sullivan, whose recent piece in New York magazine detailed exactly how the frenzied pace of the Internet broke him. “I Used To Be a Human Being,” the headline declared, achingly. The story described his addiction to his phone and the worlds contained therein, then a stint at a meditation retreat to shake the addiction, then several epiphanies about how we’re robbing ourselves of the peace we require, mentally and spiritually. He guesses that if we wanted, we could all take a “digital Sabbath” from time to time. Why not enjoy a day of rest from the world we’ve created, he suggests — before admitting that he’s lapsed back into most of his old habits, unable to conjure the superhuman strength it takes to tune out the “ubiquitous temptations” of online life.

The notion of a digital Sabbath reminded me of some Harvard kids I wrote about a year ago who had just launched a start-up called Getaway. Getaway is (say it with me) like Airbnb for tiny houses in the wilderness — a handful of luxe but rustic 160-to-200-square-foot cabins outside Boston that guests can book in order to unplug in the peace of nature. (Cabins are situated in areas where there’s no development, no wi-fi and spotty cell reception.) With some help from “the newest innovations in technology” and a million bucks in VC funding, Getaway has essentially re-created Walden. No need to quote Thoreau here; the project’s success speaks for itself, as Getaway has recently expanded to the wilds outside New York, and its online reservations to unplug and disconnect in a tiny house in the middle of nowhere sell out months in advance.

ANN GITTER IS NEITHER tired nor freaked out, thank you very much.

Gitter owns Knit Wit, the high-end women’s boutiques in Rittenhouse, Bryn Mawr and Margate. You’d think, given her occupation, that she’d be a bit less sanguine than she is about disruption. Especially because after half a century in business, she’s seen a marked decrease in foot traffic in the past few years. But then, so has everyone. “There’s nobody in retail who won’t tell you that their traffic isn’t down,” she tells me, “and that’s because of online retail.”

Her businesses are in fine shape, though, perhaps because Gitter was one of the first retailers to go online to sell her clothes, before Neiman’s or Macy’s or Net-a-Porter. “When I started, I was first on the search page for designers I carried,” she says proudly. She sold like mad. “But then one day I woke up and everyone was online, and I went from page one to page 10. Instead of having a growing business, I had a shrinking business.” Her answer to this was outsourcing her online business to the fashion mega-website Farfetch: “As an indie retailer, that’s the only way I can survive. Nobody is going to find Knit Wit online in this world, but they know the big boys like Farfetch.”

She acknowledges, a bit wistfully, that in-person clothes-selling is more fun than online clothes-selling, which is essentially packing and shipping. “But I’m no Debbie Downer. I think we’re going to see creative, wonderful things continue to come from all of this.” Call it tech-induced problem-solving, or call it evolution (aren’t they the same thing now?): Gitter says she expects that down the road, indie stores like hers will end up splitting spaces as an answer to ever higher rents and lower foot traffic. “It’s happening already in London,” she says. “You see a store like mine, maybe a coffee shop and a flower shop all sharing a space.” She adds brightly: “It makes it more interesting!”

Rogers, my hair-salon owner, is similarly perky about prospects. Yes, the tech learning curve can be tiring, she acknowledges, but there’s also more opportunity to grow the business. “I just know that as I get older, it’s going to take a lot of effort on my part to learn what I need to know to make these things happen,” she says. “Luckily, I have experience and content on my side.”

I say thank God for these women and their pluck, and the reminder that rising to the challenge is a great American tradition — and more important than ever at this juncture. Of course, none of this solves the problem of exhaustion, and I’m not suggesting it should alleviate the angst of those of us, the grumbling generation, who are having to do the hard work of learning to deal with this new pace. I’m also not saying that we simply shrug when Harvard Business Review reports that the Internet has been “more effective in eliminating jobs than creating new ones.” I’m only saying there might be some virtue in taking a deep breath and adopting a sort of pragmatic long view. As one friend who runs an online business recently observed, we’re really only in the Internet’s early years — not infancy, exactly, but, say, middle school: “And middle school is shitty and confusing.” It’s also hopeful: Even the most miserable middle-schooler can still turn out okay.

A pragmatic long view feels a lot happier than my slouching-toward-Bethlehem instinct, though it raises two questions: Can we help this digital world outgrow its most wretched, destructive adolescent instincts — viral fake news, online bullying, hideous commenters and so on? And can we train ourselves not to be mindlessly drawn to new over good, and learn to happily mesh our two worlds — the digital and the real (with much more emphasis on the real)?

I’m not entirely optimistic on these fronts, but I do think that if you look for them, you can see signs of hope. Google attempted in 2013 to launch glasses that were also a computer; the public said, “That’s stupid,” Google caved, and the slick and modern didn’t win out over common sense. This is good. I also think Josh Kopelman, disrupter extraordinaire, chair of the Philadelphia Media Network board, telling local news start-up Billy Penn he was moved by the “vital civic purpose” newspapers serve is hopeful. There’s also a rise in indie-bookstore openings; a boom in board-game sales; and scads of political movements — like Black Lives Matter and local, action-oriented chapters of Pantsuit Nation — that fomented on Facebook and leapt into real life, helping offset (a little) the fear that technology has forever maimed our republic.

The last bit — that progression from digital into analog — is maybe the most hopeful sign of all: out of the noise, human connection. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle pointed out in her seminal book Alone Together, there’s still nothing more vital to a happy life than human connection, which technology has largely discouraged. These days, according to Psychology Today, Americans over 30 are as unhappy as they’ve been in decades. Suicide rates are at a 30-year high. It’s no surprise that Friedman, like Turkle, thinks a big part of thriving in his Age of Accelerations lies in focusing on maintaining community in real life — not in abandoning technology, but in choosing to invest in human connections as well. (He adds that the highest-paying jobs in the future will be “stempathy jobs” — those that combine tech and science with human empathy.)

This isn’t a unique drum to beat, but it deserves our attention. After that Chinese toddler died last summer, Turkle pleaded in the Times: “Talk to your co-workers, talk to your family. Never bring a phone to a meal. No phones in the car. No phones at meetings or in classrooms. We can find our way back to each other.”

We should listen.

A few months back, a colleague of mine noted the need for a Slow Food movement for the Internet. Slow Food, if you recall, was a backlash to fast-food culture. It focused on the social and economic impact of consumption, on investing in what was fresh, good and fair. There’s something here, I think, in our quest for happiness in a digital age. Just because technology can create doesn’t mean we must consume. Enjoy what’s local. Fast isn’t always healthy, and there are more important things than convenience. Also — and I know this sounds like the setup for a joke — I think we should consider the Amish. In his book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, devoted a chapter to the Amish, who do actually use some technology, he noted, but do so according to a guideline we all, as individuals, might mull: Will this technology strengthen our community, or will it separate us from one another? And if we realize it’s not helping our lives, might we, as the Amish do, give it up?

In this vein, I recently downloaded an app called OffTime that alerts you when you’re on your phone longer than you’ve indicated you want to be. “You’re on your phone for 15 minutes,” it scolds me with a beep, startling me out of whatever I’m reading. “For 20 minutes.” It’s just awful and I hate it, and chances are OffTime won’t last the month. But I can’t deny that it’s done its job, hectoring me until I put the phone down, as I did the other night.

I was on the bus. OffTime beeped. I sighed, threw my phone in my purse, and looked instead out into the twilight, where the city’s lights twinkled against a purple sky. It was very beautiful. The little girl in front of me was pressing her face against the cold window to take it in, too, and I felt a surge of gratitude to be alive right now, and phoneless, and looking out at the world with her.