Last summer over at Pitchfork, music critic Lindsay Zoladz has brought her “Ordinary Machines” column to a close with a piece entitled “Everything Happens So Much.” In it, she recounts her recent trip to Germany, and reflects on “the strange fatigue of digital life.” For many, these words of Zoladz’s will likely sound familiar:
These days, my daily internet behavior is depressingly predictable: Every morning I’ll click on more articles than I’d ever have time to read, clutter my browser with tab after tab after tab, and then at some moment every afternoon I’ll finally admit my own mortality and close all the things I didn’t get to.
Many of us make “the rounds” online every morning. Coffee in hand, clad in pyjama pants and a t-shirt, I browse various news and music websites, scrolling through feeds and opening up each interesting article in a new tab. Whatever articles I can’t get to before it’s time to get ready for work simply await me after work, only to be (a) bookmarked but never read; (b) quickly skim read; or (c) closed out in a small gesture of digital defeat. (In a cruel twist of irony, “Being A Better Online Reader” appears to have suffered fate [a].)
I’m slowly learning to give myself permission to miss out, but it takes time, especially since I’m the kind of person who’s naturally interested in cultural goings-on. Reading these websites isn’t a chore. But the act of spending so much time flitting between webpages online can, nevertheless, have negative effects and undermine one’s stated priorities.
While there is a certain amount of individual responsibility at play here, the Internet pushes us along as well. When every webpage seems designed to get you to open up as many tabs as possible, it begins to feel a bit sinister. Am I just a ping-pong ball bobbing down the stream, contributing to “traffic” counts on a website? Websites are driven by analytics. The old model of thinking about media content held that you and I being delivered a product via a news medium — a news medium that includes some advertising so it can stay afloat. The new model, however, acknowledges that, in fact, that advertisers are being delivered attentive eyeballs via a news medium — a news medium that includes just enough original content so it can continue bringing in attentive eyeballs.
As Zoladz notes in her column, vacations help: who cares about what the latest viral news item is when you’re in freaking Berlin! Though even here, social media encourage us to obsessively chronicle our vacations, both pictorially and in writing. Doing so takes us out of the moment and places us back inside the Internet’s push/pull, again making us realize, when the din dies down at the end of the day, that everything happens so much.
Being a music journalist, Zoladz writes about how the Internet gradually changes our engagement with music over time. Significantly, she notes that her early interactions with pop music were characterized by scarcity and limitations, but that her relationship with music, and her online life in general, have now been transformed by the endless streams of information that comprise the Internet 2.0. Think of social media feeds and the changes made to Google Images, or websites with recommended links at the bottom: all expand as you scroll, sometimes endlessly. The content has no edges, and so we keep wandering around in it. Zoladz notes that this feature of the Internet appeared in 2009, and it is a big reason why I quit using Twitter: things become too time-consuming when an online website or platform eliminates the sides and bottom, making all termination points arbitrary.
Of course, the endless stream is still tempting sometimes, and Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) drives us, even when we know there are healthier motivating factors. Zoladz continues,
Shouldn’t unfettered access to music mean we all have impeccable taste and an intimate familiarity with all records previously deemed Classic and/or Important? Maybe, but I have to admit that in the past few years I’ve noticed that the stream has had a counterintuitive effect on my listening habits. For some reason, it’s made me jaded about greatness and even a little less likely to seek out Important Records—having all of them splayed out before me has reduced them to inherited experiences, foregone conclusions, boxes to tick off on a checklist. Too often I feel paralyzed and overwhelmed by history, by all that I don’t know. Everything happened so much.
My relationship with the Internet might be described as limited gratitude mixed with frequent bouts of disapointment. For me, the Internet is a life line to the outside world. I live in an insular, quiet Mennonite town in southeastern Manitoba, and it’s culturally stifling. The Internet allows me to feel like a global citizen, and to access niches of culture that don’t find expression in my immediate geographical surroundings. But the Internet but is also a curse, sucking time away from friendships, writing, exercise, and other worthwhile pursuits. It fractures my attention and creates new neural pathways in my brain. I don’t even have to contend with social media, and yet I still fret about how much of my free time is spent online. Some of it is worthwhile, but sometimes it feels like I’m skiing 10 feet in front of a thundering avalanche, and the only way to stay ahead is to read all of the fifteen articles the New Yorker puts online every day. Everything does indeed happen so much, and there’s nothing wrong with making a sharp left turn, heading back to the chalet, and hanging up your skis for a few days.