Loneliness is what the internet and social media claim to alleviate, though they often have the opposite effect. Communion can be hard to find, not because we aren’t occupying the same physical space but because we aren’t occupying the same mental plane: we don’t read the same news; we don’t even revel in the same memes. Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found.
Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction
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About twenty years ago the novelist Umberto Eco, noting like George Orwell how loose the word fascism had become, wrote that the ideology is like a virus that changes to reflect the contours of the society in which it exists. Mussolini’s version was quite different from Franco’s, for example. But wherever it went, claimed Eco, …