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We embrace the internet because it seems to hugely increase our autonomy, but the online world soon gives us the sense that, when it comes to what it offers us, we have no meaningful choices at all. Photograph: iStock
Pamela Paul must be one of the last subscribers to the branch of Netflix that allows its users to see films via the Stone Age practice of receiving DVDs in the post. I know this because, two days after we talk, she sends me a blurry photograph of her last hire – The Anniversary Party, a 2001 comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming – along with a Q&A she did for the New York Times, about the art of what she calls “sliding backward on tech”. Its basic point is summarised in one of Paul’s characteristic bits of aphoristic wisdom: “In general, when I hear the phrase ‘There’s an app for that,’ my first question is: ‘Does there need to be?’”
Paul, who is 50, is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. She does not use any streaming services. As late as 2019 she bought – read this slowly – portable CD players for two of her children. As a matter of principle, she refuses to own or use anything resembling a tablet, except her phone. “I don’t want a tablet,” she says, her face adopting an expression of mild disgust. “People have tried to give me a tablet; I want nothing to do with that tablet. I would probably have to be paid a salary of, like, $250,000 a year to use a Kindle or an iPad to read on. It would be that unpleasant.”
This is not quite the expression of Luddite fundamentalism it might seem. Paul’s professional life is just as tech-heavy as most other people’s. She says her working hours are “a cascade of Zooms”, while her fairly prolific tweeting is not suggestive of someone who lives in a cave. But she does maintain a personal existence partly rooted in the pre-internet age. Moreoever, she is old enough – like me – to recall clearly what life was like in those far-off times, and to feel a nagging sense of loss about what the online world has rendered useless and irrelevant.
This is the context for her latest book, 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet. Its form seems to fit an era of short attention spans, breaking up its author’s writing into short essays with headings such as “Solitude”, “Ignoring people”, “Leaving a message” and “A parent’s undivided attention”. At its best, the book reads like it mixes journalism with sociology and anthropology. To its credit, it also manages the rare feat of exploring what technology has done to us without succumbing to doom and panic.
We talk for an hour on a video call, and one thing quickly becomes clear: Paul is the kind of freewheeling conversationalist who was always going to feel a little adrift in a world of one-line texts, emojis and the disappearance of the long, digressive phone conversation.
“There are a lot of terrible things to say about the internet,” she says. “What I wanted to focus on was not so much all of those doomsday scenarios, although they exist, but to look at all of these forces and say, ‘What does this mean for what we do in our daily lives – from the moment we wake up to the iPhone alarm to the moment when we’re trying to fall asleep at night and we can’t because we’re, like, ‘Oh my God, there’s this newsletter that arrives at 11pm. Let me just see what it says’? What does it actually mean down here at the level of how we live?”
Paul has been an author for nearly 20 years, specialising in what she calls “the intersection of consumer culture and real life”. Her first book, published in 2002, was about what she called “starter marriages” – the trend for many people’s first experience of matrimony to be short and childless – and how this was partly traceable to the huge wedding industry.
Three years later came a prescient work titled Pornified, which focused on one of the internet’s most pernicious aspects; it was subtitled How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families. Parenting Inc, from 2008, was about the consumerisation of raising kids.
By way of offering an antidote of some kind, her 2019 book, How to Raise a Reader – written with her NYT colleague Maria Russo – was a straightforward guide to pulling children away from screens and encouraging the declining habit of getting immersed in books.
100 Things draws on themes that have run through a lot of her work. It applies an appealing humour and light touch, and tells a vivid story: how, in little more than 20 years, we have shed ingrained social and behavioural habits, as well as some of the most basic ways we once thought of ourselves and our relationships with others.
If they are minded to read it, anyone under 40 will presumably understand the book as the evocation of a strange, slow, endlessly inconvenient reality that now feels almost exotic. For anyone older, it will deliver a sense of loss – and of being old enough to remember times that seem almost hilariously distant.
One of Paul’s talents is the ability to see big change in lots of small ones. She writes about the end of talking to strangers on aeroplanes; the increasingly lost human habit of staring out of windows; and why no one bothers to remember phone numbers any more.
A key part of the internet’s behavioural and psychological revolution is the subject of the book’s opening entry: boredom, the decline of which has radically altered childhood (as any parent will know). “Only a few short decades ago, during the lost age of underparenting, grownups thought a certain amount of boredom was appropriate, even to be encouraged, because it forced kids to exercise their imagination and ingenuity,” Paul writes. “A little ennui would make a person less bored in the long run.”
“Boredom serves a function,” she says now. “It’s boring, obviously, and we don’t like that, but, when you have no input coming in, you generate output. That’s how you become resourceful. But now you constantly have access to information, entertainment, distraction – all of this stuff coming in, coming in and coming in. And it doesn’t allow you the empty space to create something, or to just process something.
“I spent so much time in the back seat of my parents’ car bored out of my skull. There was nothing to do. Then your brain wanders and you think about things. Now every kid in the car has their own device, and they’re listening to their own music or their own audiobook or their own podcasts, or they’re playing a video game or they’re swiping through social media, or they’re taking a million and one pictures of themselves and snapping them up to Snapchat. I don’t know why. How many times can you look at people’s faces?”
In a roundabout way, this brings us to something that the book explores a lot: the sense that most of us live in front of a constant audience, with few benefits to show for it. “I feel like what’s happened is that everyone is living the emotional lives of famous people, constantly needing to react to this world that is so much larger than the actual human world that they otherwise would be inhabiting. And I think that is really emotionally and psychologically hard to handle, in the same way that it’s hard to handle for a celebrity. They’re lucky that they get to be rich and probably beautiful on top of that and have lots of privileges. But most of us, frankly, don’t.”
Paul’s book is not quite the endless lament our conversation suggests. Some of its entries are full of ambivalence: being able to “Google the hell out of someone” in advance of a blind date might rob the occasion of its mystery, but it is surely all to the good; the modern impossibility of getting lost might sometimes mean that we don’t “succumb to chance and make our own discoveries”, but it has its upsides. There is also material about things surely no one will miss: chequebooks, old-school encyclopedias, the Filofax (note to younger readers: ask your parents).
Nonetheless, her most poignant, thought-provoking points are about things we should not throw overboard with the enthusiasm that the tech industry wants us to – and, by implication, about the necessity of what she calls “microrebellions”. Besides her CD players and rented DVDs, there is another obvious example.
“Well, look here,” she says. She pulls her computer to her left and my screen is filled with the image of thousands of books.
She thinks for a moment. “Do you know what the way I think about all this is? I am highly technological in my day job, because I have to be. And then, in my personal life, rather than the default being opt-in, my default is opting out. I will only adopt something if I really think it’s going to improve my life in some substantial way.”
Here, perhaps, is a modern paradox. We embrace the internet because it seems to hugely increase our autonomy, but the online world soon gives us the sense that, when it comes to what it offers us, we have no meaningful choices at all. The only thing to do is to drop the old, embrace the new and live with the consequences.
“We have the option to say, I don’t want that product,” says Paul. “I don’t actually have to pay by [the mobile payment service] Venmo. I don’t need PayPal. I don’t have to get my books from an online retailer. There are other ways of doing these things. It’s a choice. Buying or not buying a pair of jeans or a new skin cream – those are all options, too. And yet, for some reason, with technology, we forget that we have control.” –Guardian
100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet by Pamela Paul is published by Random House
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