Books

Sebastian Smee
Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age

We’re all feeling the downsides of life on the internet. Not just seeing them – though that too – but personally feeling them, which means we can manifest them in different types of language that other people may find more or less meaningful or useful in reflecting their own inner worlds. Once I finished this essay by Sebastian Smee, the Pulitzer-winning art critic first for The Boston Globe and now for The Washington Post, by way of the University of Sydney, I looked long and hard at my phone and tried to pay attention to what feelings it squeezes out of my own gooey soul. It’s a mix of excitement, exhaustion and routine blahness; the whole thing feels like kind of a smear.

For Smee, “Even when I put my device aside and attach it to a charger, it pulses away in my mind, like the throat of a toad, full of blind, amphibian appetite.” The throat of a toad – so menacing. As an image, wicked and precise. Although this essay includes a lot of data and analysis, it includes in equal measure images such as these, mini-essays on contemporary artists, a high volume of Alice Munro quotes, and some pretty funny judgements about the gooey souls of actual people the author knows. It’s not science, but Smee, whose criticism is known for its passionate enthusiasm, approaches this grimy topic as a passionate enthusiast. We may not feel anything terrific when we look at the internet, but you can write full-heartedly about this bleak and dehumanising tool, which has come to feel like the state of the world but it needn’t.

The essay is erudite and omnivorous – like an upgraded toad – but it treats the reader, and the internet, a little bit too mercifully. I wanted to commit to a life that’s all inner, no outer, full of long walks in the moonlight – one of the author’s favourite things – preferably on the way to a devastating bonfire full of beautifully burning tech bro effigies. I am convinced a vengeful spirit is pounding through this essay, but the voice comes off as reasoned and carefully appropriate, sometimes in a way that’s counter to the point it seems to be making. In other words, it gives a good sense of proximity to another human mind, even as it’s asking interesting questions about the nature of these minds – whether there’s really such a thing as inner life, and if so, how we know we’re feeling it, let alone sharing it. As the novelist said to the wi-fi router, only connect.  CR

Quarterly Essay, 128pp, $22.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 8, 2018 as "Sebastian Smee, Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR