Sebastian Smee, Net loss: The inner life in the digital age (#BookReview)

Book CoverIf you’ve been reading my blog recently, you’ll already know why I am reviewing Sebastian Smee’s Quarterly Essay edition, “Net loss: The inner life in the digital age”, but to briefly recap, it’s because it inspired a member of my reading group to recommend we read Anton Chekhov’s short story, “The lady with the little dog”. What wonderful paths a reading life can take, eh?

Smee’s aim in his essay is, he says,

to dig into this idea that we all have an inner life with its own history of metamorphosis – rich, complex and often obscure, even to ourselves, but essential to who we are. It is a part of us we neglect at our peril. I am interested in it because of my sense that, as we live more and more of our lives online and attached to our phones, and as we are battered and buffeted by all the informational, corporate and political surges of contemporary life, this notion of an elusive but somehow sustaining inner self is eroding.

He commences the essay, though, by admitting that he uses social media – a lot. And not only that, he also admits that he knows that he is “handing out information about myself to people whose motives I can’t know. I feel I should be bothered by this, but I’m not, particularly.” He’s not bothered because they know only know “superficial stuff” about him, such as his phone number and age, what sports teams he supports, the music he listens to and where he does the weekly food shop. From all this, he  says, they can probably guess how he’ll vote, but, he says, and this is a big but, “they cannot know my inner life”.

This is where Chekhov’s “The lady with the little dog” comes in because Gurov discusses his inner and outer lives, making clear that the inner life is where “everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people”.

The digital age is, as Smee says, making huge incursions into our lives. Children, “from a young age, are encouraged to present performative versions of themselves online” and, for all of us, “it gets harder to be alone with ourselves or to pick up a book; harder still to stay with it”. This is true – to a degree – though there are many of us who do carve out alone-times for ourselves. For me, this includes never being plugged in when I walk. That is definitely my alone-time. As is my yoga time, and bed-time when my phone is in another room, while my book is with me!

But, what is this inner life? How do we define it? Smee says it includes “apprehensions of beauty, your intimations of death, what is going on inside you when you are in love, or when your whole being is in turmoil”. He feels that, today, “we can no longer assume that it has its own reality. To the extent that it exists at all, it seems to have no place in public discourse. Even in discussions of art, it is ignored, thwarted, factored out”. Hmm, I haven’t consciously thought about whether, when discussing the arts, we refer to our inner lives, whether we share our innermost feelings about what we see, hear or read, but I’d have thought we do. Yet, if Smee is right about what he calls “the obscurity and unknowability of our inner selves”, then have we ever?

Anyhow, Smee explores what “self” is and how various writers and artists have viewed it. Chekhov’s Gurov, for example, felt a tension between his inner and outer lives; while American filmmakers Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin, he says, portray our identity, our inner selves, as something flexible, as something messy, splintered, and defined by our relationships with each other.

Smee talks about the effect of social media, like Facebook, on our selves. Trustworthy studies, like one in the American Journal of Epidemiology, he says, “find that use of Facebook correlates with diminished wellbeing, both physical and mental”. Correlation doesn’t mean causation of course but the implication is there. Smee returns to his question about how much companies like Facebook really know about us, about how accurate their profiles are.

He talks throughout the essay about algorithms, because that is how social media software works. Their algorithms that deal “with big and disparate data sets can see patterns where they couldn’t previously be detected”. This has “proved incredibly useful in business, medicine and elsewhere”. However, these algorithms “still struggle to cope with the messiness and idiosyncrasy that inhere in individual human beings.” Can they, will they ever be able to, gain access to our inner lives? It’s hard to say, he says, because “individual reality is beyond quantification. And cause and effect are always more complex than we like to think”.

Throughout his discussion, Smee draws mostly on writers and artists, rather than on philosophers and psychologists, to explore his topic, to exemplify his arguments. And so to this question of quantifying individual reality, he turns to Cézanne, who conveys in his art that

life … is not hierarchical, like a newspaper article, or linear, like an algorithm. It is fluid and multifaceted … Instead of cause and effect, there are only clusters of interlocking circumstances which mysteriously give rise to new circumstances.

Will, I wonder, this inherent instability save us – and our inner lives?

Social media will, of course, continue to keep trying to access our selves. One way they do so is by trying to capture as much of our attention as they can. And yet, Smee goes on to argue, our inner lives, “the very things that move us the most”, are, in fact, “the hardest to share”. Chekhov knew it was hard to do. Moreover, he knew that sharing our inner selves “can also be a betrayal of the primary, inward experience.” Touché.

Smee also makes an important distinction between private and inner life. Privacy is linked to political freedom (and power), he says, “to what you do and think away from the interested, potentially controlling eyes of others”. It’s “a shallow concept”. Inner life, on the other hand, as he argues throughout the essay, “may be elusive and impossible to define”.

And yet, says Smee, it’s this inner life that can erupt into hate, as we see played out on social media, the trolling, the never-ending vindictiveness. He references Frances Bacon’s paintings, arguing that they “dramatise a tension between the psyche’s darker compulsions and a pressure felt within civilised society to conform, to stifle emotions, not to lash out.”

Do we want these inner lives unleashed? (In a way, though, we then know what people really think?!) However, the question that most interests Smee is why are these negative aspects of our inner lives being unleashed? He suggests that it’s what all the artists (the filmmakers, writers and painters) he quotes are expressing – “an apprehension that we are alone”. This is where, Smee proposes, social media comes in with a solution:

One response to this panic, it seems to me, is to disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible. Social media, and the internet generally, make this feel possible, to an unprecedented degree. They allow us to lay before the world (in the hope that the world will be watching) the things we love, the things we hate, and a mediated image of our lives that can seem to rescue us from the threat of oblivion.

But, to really protect our inner lives, he believes, we need the converse: “to pay attention again to our solitude, daring to hope that we might connect that solitude to the solitude of others.”

So where does the essay leave us? Early on he argues that

Once nurtured in secret, protected by norms of discretion or a presumption of mystery, this ‘inner’ self today feels [my emph] harshly illuminated and remorselessly externalised, and at the same time flattened, constricted and quantified.

It’s easy for us to say, yes, yes, yes, this is so, but I wonder whether this too is just a feeling? And whether, in truth, our inner lives remain as obscure and unknowable as Smee describes in the essay – and therefore as rich as ever? Net loss is a fascinating essay to read – particularly for “arty” types who love allusions to writers and artists. He makes pertinent points about the way social media operates and gives us much to think about regarding the inner life, but in the end leaves us with more questions than answers – which is perfectly alright. The one immutable, however, is that whatever we think is happening, the inner life is worth protecting.

Lisa (ANZLitlovers) reviewed this, as did Amy (The Armchair Critic) who discusses it at some depth including delving into what Smee doesn’t do.

Sebastian Smee
“Net loss: The inner life in the digital age”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 72
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781743820698

20 thoughts on “Sebastian Smee, Net loss: The inner life in the digital age (#BookReview)

  1. Wow. This sounds so fascinating and very relevant. There are so many ideas addressed just in your post. I almost feel like I would need a day or two to chew them over before formulating opinions. I will say that this is relevant to our blogs to. Book Bloggers that I follow range from folks who only do impersonal reviews to those who share intimate details of their lives.

    I very much agree that for some, exposure of one’s inner self on social media shows rage.

    I really should give this a read.

    Your commentary here is terrific.

    • Thanks very much Brian. This post took me forever to write because it has so much in it. I probably should have reread the whole essay again in detail rather than skim it the second time around. You can buy digital version online (and I presume it’s available outside Australia though it depends of the rights I know.

      Interesting point about the range of reviews and inner selves on blogs. I think I’m not a huge sharer of intimate details but I’d like to think that some of my self – my true values and what sort of person I am – forms part of what I say about what I read. But, I also agree that our selves are to some degree obscure and unknowable, to ourselves most of all perhaps!

  2. “interlocking circumstances which mysteriously give rise to new circumstances” – tsk! The inner finger-wagging me says ‘not “which” – THAT !’
    (It’s also the outer one, I fear.)
    I dunno if I can agree with this thesis on life, anyway …
    And so – with one bound – to “whatever we think is happening, the inner life is worth protecting”. Totally agree. Which is why social media is, to this old grump (but has been from its inception) totally ghastly.
    Blogs are different ! [grin]

    • haha, M-R, I’m a big mis-user of “which” and “that” in terms of formalities because I think “that” is an ugly word (one I particularly hate being used for people, but that Americans have been taught is correct – as in “he’s the friend that I first met at school”)

      What thesis in particular don’t you agree with?

      And haha, again, re blogs, because of course they are social media BUT in my experience they reflect the positives of social media, the way people can connect respectfully, and share some of their inner selves too. I think some blogs can get nasty, but I haven’t really found it in the book blogs and life blogs like yours. I use Instagram a lot because my daughter is there, and I don’t see nastiness there either, but I’m not a teen person performing there either – just a middle-aged woman curating herself though pics of sights, food and books!

  3. This was the book that made me take a long hard look at Facebook and decide that I did not really want it in my life. At first it was nice to see my grandnieces in London, but as FB changed its algorithms I saw less and less of that and more of what FB wanted me to see. And it was taking up so much of my time to read agenda issues that I really wasn’t interested in but my friends and colleagues had posted them so I felt I ought to. What’s more, I realised with some embarrassment that I was sometimes doing the same thing, contributing to the echo chamber effect.
    But what really killed it was the death of my parents. All those kindly messages, briefly in my feed and then gone. And I realised that I myself had stopped sending birthday and condolence cards, and also that the personal and private messages I would write in those cards were not messages I could express on FB.
    So. I still have an account. There are businesses whose only web presence is on FB, and I have now set up WordPress to automatically post my new blog posts to my FB page, but I look at it once a week or once a fortnight and I don’t miss it at all. I send real cards to my real friends, and I ring them up and I meet them for coffee and lunches. I have more time to do the things that matter to me.
    I don’t have any other accounts except for Twitter. I use that to announce my new blog posts for people who haven’t subscribed to my blog and because the Tweet can be retweeted so the book gets more publicity for its author. Occasionally I stupidly let myself get sucked into conversations there and then struggle to find a way to disappear out of it politely. Because at the end of the day, I want to talk with real people in real life, or in the expansive but well-moderated space that blog comments allow for.

    • Ah, Lisa, I remembered when you “left” Facebook but didn’t know or remember that Smee was the catalyst. Fair enough too. I don’t think I’ve really stopped sending cards because of Facebook, because I still send some. However, it’s true that I send some greetings via Facebook but they are mostly to people I hadn’t sent cards to before or would have stopped sending cards to because of changed relationships. I don’t use FB or Twitter much, though my blog posts there of course. I do use lnstagram because it’s where my daughter and other significant people now are. It’s not a place for lengthy conversations.

      BTW I think you’ll find that WP no longer publishes automatically to Facebook; that option disappeared months ago – at least it did for me and I think it’s standard? I could manually publish there but I don’t.

      Smee makes good points, but my feeling is that I’ll keep using these things in moderation to serve me, recognising of course that that will also serve others to some degree as well! It’s a balancing act isn’t it?

      • Yes, I think you’re right that moderation is the key but I would add that what you are also doing is curating social media to suit yourself e.g. you use Instagram because your daughter is there. That is IMO what it’s about, it’s about using social media in ways that benefit us, and not getting sucked into it if it doesn’t.

    • There is something distasteful in most of FB. Either narcissistic self-regard or avaricious promotion. Nevertheless, I am on there, advertising books. How else do we reach people in these times?

      • You’re right, even though I’ve abandoned it in the sense that I don’t respond to anything there that’s posted by others, I still get WordPress to share my new posts there automatically. Occasionally people still contact me there, but since I’ve made it very plain that I’m not using it any more, I don’t respond. If other people want to have conversations on a platform that hosts hate speech and broadcasts terrorist activities, good luck to them, but I have my conversations here or on Twitter!

        • Ah, I’ve just realised why I haven’t been able to share my posts automatically to Facebook for a couple of years now and you have – I only have my profile, while you have a page for ANZLitLovers. Oh well, I’m not going to set up a page and have one more thing to manage, so I’ll just have to keep missing this opportunity, which is a shame. I have no idea why they stopped the ability to post to Profiles.

          I don’t use Facebook much these days but I do think there’s a philosophical discussion to be had about Facebook’s definition as a “publisher”. I would like Facebook to do what it can to control what goes up on its site, and I’d certainly like there to be better controls on privacy and security, but the issue is that Facebook can and does also provide an excellent platform for supportive groups (I’ve been involved in a couple), though I know of one such group that has recently moved elsewhere presumably because of those who use Facebook for ill. For these groups Twitter is too limited – its function is very different. These groups have pages which contain information for all to refer to for example, and they can be invitee only. My favourite social media these days is Instagram – but of course instead of being limited to 240 char, it’s primarily focused on images – but books, events, ideas, etc are all shared there. Again, as on Twitter there can be Hate stuff, but I haven’t seen it, and it has various mechanisms for managing it.

  4. I am grateful to Facebook. For the connection to the daily lives of family members and friends I might get see only once a year. Whether I get to see into their inner lives or they into mine is doubtful, though of course I and they get some idea of what bothers us.

    The people who should really worry are you and me, book bloggers, we really do talk at some length about our inner lives whether we mean to or not.

    • Yes, I’m like you Bill, I still use FB to maintain some contacts.

      And yes, re blogs. I thought a lot when writing this about how much of my inner life I’m sharing, particularly in terms of Smee’s comment that inner lives are no longer being invoked in arts discussions. I’m not sure I agree with him, but it may depend on how explicit or implicit he means versus what we are doing! But, I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I’m getting to “know” bloggers like you and Lisa?!

  5. A lot to mull over here Sue, I think I will have to read this for myself. I’ve been thinking a lot about sm use in recent times. I’ve cut right down on fb – only once or twice a week, but I do enjoy instagram. The data about our lives is already out there – supermarkets, credit cards, banks etc all share our information. The thing I’m noticing lately, and not sure if I’m being utterly paranoid, is the ‘listening’ our devices might be capable of…conversations had whilst Mr Books and I are working side by side on our workdesk at home…and next time we log into sm, we get sponsored ads related to that conversation. When then spend ages trying to remember if either of us googled the topic or searched for it online somewhere, but rarely recall actually doing so. I hope we’re wrong.

    • Yes, the “listening” thing is starting to may be wonder too. (Like you I don’t do a lot of FB or Twitter, but like Instagram – it’s quick and fun, mostly, isn’t it.) Smee’s essay is well worth reading, but don’t look much for answers!

  6. I love your notion that something remains of our inner selves that will always be hidden, even from ourselves. I agree that social media and advertisers are very keen to reach these deeper parts. There is a whole science about discovering and playing to our greatest fears and most salient dreams. Maybe they never will reach those …

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