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Can a Healthy American Society Exist on the Internet?

Two new books answer no

Rachel K. Alexander
March 05, 2021
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

In late July, the House Committee on the Judiciary grilled the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google in a hearing on data privacy, market monopolization, and viewpoint suppression. It was the rare congressional event with broad bipartisan backing, as Democrats on the committee emphasized dangers to economic opportunity from tech monopolies and Republican members stressed the threats they pose to political speech. Yet, even if Congress imposes welcome new regulations on Silicon Valley to protect free commerce and expression, it still won’t address the deeper reality: namely, that the basic fabric of American life has been fundamentally altered by the internet. As our digital infrastructure erases the distinctions between public and private life, we are learning in real time just how necessary those distinctions are to keep society from coming apart.

Two recent books, by Zena Hitz and Yuval Levin, highlight the transformative impacts of online life. Hitz is focused on the private realm and the intrinsic value of learning, essential ingredients of the good life that are threatened by a culture of ceaseless distraction. Levin, by contrast, is turned outward toward the vital role that institutions once played in molding the characters of individuals and the disastrous consequences for American society from the institutional collapse of recent decades. Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College, makes the case for a rich inner life withdrawn from the social and political scene, while Levin, director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, advocates for a recommitment to social and civic institutions. What the two authors share is a sense of the danger that digital platforms pose to their respective projects. To achieve their vision of a healthy society and the good life depends on a modern audience’s ability to resist the distractions and demands of the digital and reclaim the spatial and temporal boundaries more conducive to human flourishing.

In Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton Books, 2020) Hitz seeks to revive an appreciation for intellectual pursuit as inherently good and fundamental to human happiness. Inspired in part by Aristotle, Hitz identifies a hierarchy of “goods.” Some activities, like making money, are good only instrumentally in the service of some greater goal. We make money to buy things. Other activities, such as learning and contemplation, are good for their own sake, not because they lead to something else, but because they occasion a deeper encounter of reality. These inherent “goods” prompt fundamental questions—about the beauty and horror of the natural world, and whether human beings are a part of it; about the vastness of the universe and our relative smallness. When we seek reality for its own sake, we begin to better apprehend the cosmos and our place in it, and therefore begin to live more fully.

To learn for its own sake requires leisure: a reprieve from other imminent demands on our attention, or an “inward space,” as Hitz puts it. While external forces can threaten that space, Hitz emphasizes that for many of us, the greatest danger comes from competing desires—for social acceptance, prestige, comfort, or spectacle. Of course, these desires existed long before the advent of 21st-century technologies, as Hitz acknowledges, but she highlights the way that the internet pushes them far past their ordinary human constraints. The digital landscape, from social media to smartphones, has created an environment of hyperstimulation where natural human desires are so inflamed that they leave the individual with little room for an inward space.

What Hitz observes as the natural condition of internet-based society has become even more dramatic under new post-pandemic arrangements. For many people with jobs that allowed it, the chance to work from home may have seemed like the chance to achieve a better work-life balance but, in practice, it will likely have the opposite effect. It may be easier to sneak away for quick breaks, but the shift to remote work threatens to bring the office permanently into the home and fully erase any lingering boundaries between work life and leisure. Apps created to optimize everyday tasks, instead of creating more time for personal pursuits or family activities, enable high achievers driven by social status to work even longer hours in search of higher levels of productivity. Social networking platforms exacerbate the drive for status and prestige by incentivizing users to share work and life achievements in a compulsive competition of posting that offers no clear reward. Free time that might otherwise be spent reading or “chewing over the events of the day” with a spouse or roommate can instead be spent working. Hitz offers the urban tech worker (whose “office” requires only a screen and WiFi) as an illustration of this danger, but COVID-19 has vastly expanded the phenomenon and brought workers far outside the tech industry into the same trap.

“The world of our experience exposes us to real goods, but it takes a constant effort to see them clearly and to seek them out effectively,” Hitz writes. It is an effort that requires turning away from the constant pull of competing desires for spectacle, social acceptance, or an easy life. That discipline entails hard work and self-denial, and many of Hitz’s models of a rich intellectual life reveal this to be a tall order—at least 11 of them cultivated appreciation for the intrinsic value of learning in prison. Most of us will prefer to avoid prison even at the risk of making it more difficult to develop our inner lives, but it can be helpful to erect some tangible barriers to focus our attention and to pursue intellectual goods for their own sake. Reclaiming time and space offline is one modest way we might prepare ourselves for this pursuit.

Like Hitz, Levin, in A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream (Basic Books, 2020), also finds inspiration in Aristotle. Levin understands human beings to be political animals, whose moral and intellectual virtues cannot be developed as isolated individuals but, rather, must be formed within social institutions. Given the critical role of institutions like the family, the university, and the professional community in allowing both societies and individuals to prosper, it is no small matter that Americans’ trust in them has plummeted, and no surprise that this nosedive has coincided with what Levin calls a crisis of connectedness. Marked by rising rates of loneliness, drug overdoses, and suicides, the solution to the crisis requires “not simply connectedness but a structure of social life: A way to give shape, place, and purpose to the things we do together.”

Obstacles abound in the effort to rebuild faith in sturdy institutions. American individualistic and egalitarian ideals predispose us to be suspicious of large institutions—an instinct that is amplified by the populist tendencies of the moment. Our online ways of life further subvert the institutional structures that habituate us to live well together. “By letting us carefully curate the image of ourselves available to others,” Levin observes, “social media encourages us to think of ourselves as living performatively.” When we increasingly interact with others not through person-to-person dialogue but by means of curated profiles, we grow accustomed to approach not just Facebook but also our jobs, campuses, and even families as opportunities to craft our images. Levin identifies this social-media-driven “culture of personalized micro-celebrity, in which we each act as our own paparazzi,” as a primary source of institutional deformation.

Healthy institutions strengthen a society by impressing upon their members an ethic of integrity and responsibility rooted in a sense of mutual obligations. When I adopt an institution’s aspirations as my own and accept the restraints imposed on me for the sake of those aspirations, I learn how to rule my desires rather than be ruled by them. Instead of asking in any given scenario, “How will this look on Instagram?” I learn to ask, “How shall I act here, given my position?” Mindfulness of one’s role as granddaughter, teacher, doctor, reporter, or councilwoman can help one discern how to act and live well. But when an institution neglects or rejects its role as a mold that shapes characters and habits and becomes merely a platform for its members to express themselves and pursue their self-interest, it ceases to serve this fundamental purpose, and the larger society suffers.

Instead of asking in any given scenario, ‘How will this look on Instagram?’ I learn to ask, ‘How shall I act here, given my position?’

Beyond enticing us to approach institutions merely as platforms for the fulfillment of individuals, our online habits obliterate critical barriers between private and public spaces. On one hand, our plugged-in world renders traditionally private spaces public. Congress, for example, originally recognized protected spaces for deliberation, negotiation, and dealmaking as necessary for good governance, but a push for transparency in the 1970s made once-secret votes and meetings open to the public. Transparency can be a useful weapon against institutional corruption, Levin acknowledges, but it may also deprive an institution of a great good: an inner life. “Every institution needs an inner life—a sanctum where its work is really done.” It may seem counterintuitive to a scandal-plagued cancel culture, but strong institutions with established ways of doing things may actually be the best defense against corruption. As James Madison argued in defending the safety of the Constitution’s powerful federal government, fixed institutional procedures and norms channel its members’ ambitions to serve the institution’s goals. When those procedures become totally public—via C-SPAN for Congress, but via social media feeds for thousands of other institutions—the channel runs dry.

As jobs, errands, exercise classes, dating, and even worship services move online, the internet is becoming our primary arena for human interaction and connection. And therein lies the corollary danger: the privatization of the virtual “public square.” Unlike our typical interactions in the office, grocery store, spin class, or synagogue, we tend to be far more selective when choosing people to engage online. This has obvious attractions, as Levin acknowledges, but he warns that we should not underestimate the loss of the “unchosen experience” of meeting strangers. “Among the most valuable benefits of living in society is the miracle of serendipitous learning: Finding ourselves exposed to knowledge or opinion or wisdom or beauty that we did not seek out and would never have known to expect.” The social internet is engineered precisely to eliminate such opportunities, or at least to make them exceedingly rare. Algorithms, “designed to predict our preferences,” feed us with images, voices, and opinions that echo our own thoughts and proclivities. With every aspect of our social environment personalized, we are deprived of the chance to confront challenges outside our comfort zone that foster growth or to meet strangers who can broaden our perspective and provide us with a sense of shared identity.

Levin looks to the transformation of journalism as an example—and a warning—that illustrates how the internet weakens the critical institutions necessary to maintain a functioning democracy. Reporters were once expected to serve the editorial and institutional mission of the publication that employed them. But that was back before the collapse of journalism’s economic model led to industrywide layoffs, salary cuts, and closures. In some ways, the weakening of traditional publishing institutions has made it easier for young journalists to gain a foothold in writing online journalism. On the other hand, the employment is far more precarious, and there’s little expectation for publications to fulfill their traditional role of mentoring and developing writers. Journalists are now all but required to be on Twitter by most publications, and this appears to be where much of the industry spends the bulk of its waking hours. As the institutions of the media have been hollowed out, rather than molding the individuals who participated in them, they have become platforms for personal brands.

Many journalists have responded to the increasingly precarious and mercenary nature of the profession by rejecting the conventions and institutional constraints imposed by the editorial processes. After all, why respect institutional traditions when the institutions themselves are quick to abandon them at the first sign of controversy? For that matter, why be loyal to an institution that will quickly sacrifice employees to placate an outraged mob—as many major media institutions have done? As a challenge to the old way of doing things, journalists have taken to publicizing the inner lives of these institutions. Recent examples of this phenomenon include the public pressure campaign on Twitter led by New York Times staffers that prompted the resignation of their coworker James Bennet, as well as the now-accepted practice of leaking internal transcripts to discredit journalists with unpopular opinions.

Making the inner lives of journalistic institutions public has, paradoxically, made individual journalists’ and readers’ participation in those institutions more customized and therefore private. “This confusion of public and private (rather than the kinds of worries we often hear about surveillance or the exposure of personal information) is the real privacy crisis of the internet age,” Levin writes. “We might even think of social media as a massive informality machine, robbing our interactions of structure and of boundaries,” and making it “uniquely corrosive of institutions, which are after all precisely social forms.”

Levin frequently describes the way in which institutions shape us in the form of a question they prompt us to ask ourselves: “What should I do here, given my role or my position?” That framing fits well as a complement to Hitz’s characterization of the inner intellectual life. “We withdraw into small rooms, literal or internal,” Hitz writes and, “[i]n the space of retreat we consider fundamental questions: What human happiness consists in ... and whether and how a truly just community is possible.” A healthy society depends on the balance between these spaces—the interior life, the private realm within an institution, and the public space where institutions carry out social and civic missions—but the power of the internet wears down even our best attempts to maintain well-ordered, separate spaces. For better or worse, it tends to break down all walls and borders except those created by the tech giants themselves. To flourish in our essential spaces and repair the damage done to them, Hitz and Levin suggest that we may need to begin by turning off our screens so we can tune in to our surroundings.

Rachel K. Alexander is Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.