A Fan of Private Life: On Social Media, Novels, & Tuning out

I am a fan of private life.  Lolling in a hammock…making gazpacho…reading the latest book by Richard Russo.   None of that is especially personal, but I can’t help notice that private life is increasingly driven and threatened by electronic devices.  All that meaningless data at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is eaten up by bots, advertisers, and given to the Russians.  “She reads Dostoevsky’s Demons. She’s a Democrat.”

Knock yourself out.

If only we could turn back the clock. How far we’ve come from those days when every liberal group, from unions to anti-war protesters to environmental activists, worried about a hostile co-worker’s eavesdropping or FBI infiltration.  Now we are trusting and post everything online.  Timothy Leary’s hipster philosophy in the ’60s was:  “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”  I would revise that to “Turn off (your phones), tune in (to reality), drop out (from the electronic-fantasy community at least a few hours a day).

If I were an advice columnist,  I’d emphasize the following private-life-enhancing “Do’s and “Don’t’s”

  • Do read many, many novels (a study at Emory University found that reading fiction improved brain function and empathy)
  • Don’t read only on tablets or computers (devices with access to the internet and email are distracting)
  • Do take social media breaks (a study shows that comparing yourself to  Facebook friends causes depression).
  • Don’t delude yourself that your “followers” are your best friends, because only those annoying people in real life will be there in an emergency)

Every age has its bête noire: in the mid-20th century, it was TV, not the internet.  I grew up in a TV-centric household:  we watched soap operas, football games on Thanksgiving,  and I can still sing the Patty Duke Show theme song.  My husband and I watched Seinfeld  so many times we know the dialogue.  He was allowed to watch very little TV when he was growing up, but bizarrely he knows more TV trivia than I do.

Most of what I know is gleaned from novels.  I am a great fan of novels.  I don’t care much for following the news; I want to know how people think and feel, and fiction writers capture that much more veraciously than  journalists.  And novelists know the issues.  I was fascinated by Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, the last novel in her Children of Violence series, when the heroine Martha Quest muses on how TV has changed the oral narratives of working-class Londoners, who used to tell stories instead of sitting passively in front of TV.   Now I can’t say TV stopped any of the women in my family from chatting, in person, on the phone, in letters, or on Christmas cards.  It was chat, chat, chat, chat.  But I am sure TV did something to our brains.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t influenced by silly trends in non-electronic culture.  I briefly adored chanting “Power to the people” at protests–and then I learned that People, once they got Power, were no better than Politicians.  I once bought a pair of ostrich cowgirl boots at Banana Republic, which were useless in the snow, and didn’t go very well with my office dresses either.  And I tried to memorize The Mikado before a headmaster’s party where the posh teachers sat around the piano singing Gilbert and Sullivan.  Resentfully, I did Gilbert and Sullivan homework for these excruciating parties.  May I  say that nothing in my reading life or TV-watching life prepared me for it?

All in all, I agree with Linda Radlett in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.  She  left her bourgeois banker husband for Christian, a rebellious aristocrat and communist, and though she loves him dearly, she finds the communists very tiring and serious.

You know, being a Conservative is much more restful,” Linda said to me  once in a moment  of confidence, when she was being unusually frank about her life, “though one must remember that it is bad, not good.  But it does take place within certain hours, and then finish, whereas Communism seems to take up all one’s life.”

I am happy to say that being a Democrat is restful, too.  I take it up at certain hours, right before I go voting, and then forget about it.  I would be much more anxious if I voted for the Green Party, because I’d agonize about wasting my vote.

Well, we must blend our electronic life (and not spend too much time on it) with our private life (to which we must devote more time).

What are your pet peeves about our electronic age?

8 thoughts on “A Fan of Private Life: On Social Media, Novels, & Tuning out

  1. Haha being a Communist is so tediously time-consuming! Good thing I never succumbed.

    As someone with a serious chronic illness whose ability to socialize is very limited, I find social media and the internet a godsend–sort of. My main pet peeve is the fact that people have no problem sending you texts and emails, frequently work-related, at all hours of the day and night. You’re never really off the clock from either work on evenings and weekends, or socializing during the work week.

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    • Nancy Mitford is so witty!
      There ARE many good things about social media, but you’re right about never being off the clock. I suppose that’s why people talk about “social media breaks,” which I only learned about a year or two ago,

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  2. I grew up in the era before TV, but we listened to soap operas (dreadful soapy stuff) and to The Lone Ranger on the radio. To each generation its own electronic pablum I suppose. My pet peeve now is people who don’t look at you when you talk to them but continue fiddling with their phones.

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  3. Yup, I couldn’t agree more! My main fear with all this electronic stuff is that it’s reducing our attention span and distracting us from more serious issues, either in our personal or public lives. I try to limit myself – but the electronic can be so addictive…

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