Gimme Shelter: Going on a diet

When I recently decided to go on a diet, I chose starvation. And to really overdo it, I decided to do this on my vacation, two weeks of going without.

But wait — it wasn’t food I forswore. I never once looked at my laptop and never even so much as peeked at my iPhone except to get the time. No email, no texts, no voice mail. No internet.

Strangely enough, I not only survived, but was happy. I admit there were a few times when I went to drag my phone from my pocket — it had been turned off the moment Mary and I flew away — and connect to the web.

One morning, when Mary was in a shop in a small town, I stood outside on the street, knowing she would be awhile. I had an urge to look at the phone to check out, oh, I don’t know: Speculations on who would manage the Mets next season? The 400th report on the death of Gabby Petito? The daily Far Side cartoon? Seinfeld bloopers?

But then, like a man lusting for chocolate cake, I resisted, reminding myself: You’re on a diet. I left the phone in my pocket and looked at the people passing on the street, exchanging nods of recognition, stranger to stranger, and even had one man, after catching my eye, greet me and say, “Beautiful day.”

I looked at clouds over the two-story building across the street, piled like pillows, bundled up, ever changing, drifting. A memory came. I was a child playing the game with my sister of lying in the grass looking up, calling out clouds that reminded us of animals, fish, states of the union, or happy or sad faces.

Memories of Peggy were allowed to come as I stood on the street, not inspired through a screen, but by way of fresh air.

According to researchers USC Annenberg, since the turn of the century, the time Americans spend online has risen from 9.4 hours per week to 23.6, or one day a week. And accessing the web via mobile devices has grown from 23% in 2010 to 84%.

But so what?

I’m not one of those wringing hands, gasping that we’ve descended into “escapism.” As someone pointed out, escapism might be the only sane alternative to brutal reality. Long ago, puritanical idiots were raving that comic books were leading American youth down the path of escapism.

And, the digital world is, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), a remarkable tool. I’ve used it several times writing this column, and I’m not finished. My profession was one of the first to go digital, installing computer terminals in newsrooms across the world.

I was once speaking to John Leonard, the journalist, author and social critic, who said: “My whole writing life they’ve been removing senses. You had ink, you had paper, you had tactility. I was at The New York Times when they closed down the linotype machines, put down carpets, took away the sounds of typewriter keys, carriages and bells, and made paper disappear. But once I started with a computer I realized I was back where I began in high school, that it was a doodle until I chose to make it into a sentence. Once that happened, it restored something in me that had been lost. Playing.”

I know first-hand the benefits the web provides to the Reporter, and you, our readers (hello, and welcome). I run the paper’s website, posting 29 times a week to this site, four posts every week day and three each on Saturday and Sunday. We present news, features, columns, obituaries, our calendar, the police blotter, sports, real estate sales and what’s happening on the Island in the arts and entertainment. I then, after they go live on our site, post them to our Facebook page.

I’m aware what this means to fulfilling our obligation as the Island’s designated official paper of record, and what it means financially to our business.

But to deny that something potentially dangerous is happening to us is to be hustled. Mark Zuckerberg is babbling about “the metaverse,” which, as Fortune reported, is a “digital universe that can be accessed through virtual reality.”

Cool. A digital universe. Something to remember, when you hear Zuck and others hailing a gateway to “a virtual reality,” is that, not only is there a sucker born every minute, but there are two to take him.

Remarking that the web is a good thing, and a bad thing, is below the banal level of observation. But it’s essential to focus on both, and remember Blaise Pascal, who said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

My diet was to get away, at least for a little while, from the idea that we’re in danger of selling our sense of self, and our connection to others, to sociopaths who are running perpetual mass markets of lies and distortion to gain power over us. 

My diet ended when the plane landed back home. But now I’m being sensible about what I consume, remembering that looking up and out is often healthier than down at the tiny tyrant in my hand.

There were many moments I treasure while going without, like forgetting the title of a movie, and thinking: Do I have to know it this minute? Or keeping a lid on the desire to distract myself with clicks and just keep looking at patches of drifting ground fog, changing second by second, over an open field at dusk.