Sebastian Smee - losing our inner lives to social media

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:08 pm on 18 December 2018

Our inner life - the time spent alone with our thoughts when we sort out our emotions and make sense of experience - is at risk when we constantly present ourselves on social media, Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee says.

Social Media

Social Media Photo: (Photo by William Iven on Unsplash)

He has written an essay about it: Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age.

“I think we lose something, when we’re constantly presenting ourselves and letting ourselves spill out into this strange medium, the internet.”

Our inner lives operate on a different time signature, he says.

“If you think about it in musical terms, it’s a slower movement, it’s the development of feelings and intuition that in a way seems to exist in a completely different time signature to most of the rest of our increasingly harried and busy lives.”

We have fallen into a performative way of existing in society, which is a part of human nature, but not the whole story, he says.

“I started to wonder is there a sense in which we’re losing touch not only with our inner lives, but the very idea that there is an inner life? When you see people performing on reality TV, it’s almost a sense that they’re happy just to exist on this level of performance, there isn’t anything beneath it.”

And social media is cleverly constructed so that we unconciously mould to it, he says.

“We often underestimate the extent to which we do tailor ourselves to fit the mediums that we use, to present ourselves online. Facebook for instance, it’s so sort of addictive and brilliant in a way that we just adopt its framework, we’re liking something or we’re friending something or someone.”

More and more, people - especially young people - are living a kind of Instagram life, he says.

“It’s so recent, all of this, and it’s hard for a lot of us even to conceive of what it was like before mobile phones, before social media and all these things. We all sense it has changed the dynamic in massive ways, it’s hard to put your finger on what the consequences of this will be and what it’s doing to just shift our own sense of reality now.”

Some of this new connected world is positive, he says.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee Photo:

“The internet has allowed us to connect with people around us, the possibility of building communities online that are real and offer real help to people - and real solace, if you like.

“On the other hand, I think there is a tendency for it to be very superficial and more than that, because of the way the software is designed and the interface, it really is addictive.”

We see this in any public place in the world now, he says.

"We’re constantly distracted, we’re in a room waiting for someone or at a party, or on public transport and all our modes of interaction have been reduced down to just picking up our phone, it’s a default position we just stare at our phone – I do it myself."

In a place where you might expect contemplation, the phone has invaded.

“You’re in a museum and you look around you and people are just staring at their phones, it is a phenomenon that has changed life so much I think.”

The nurturing of our deeper selves is a form of resistance against algorithms, he says.

"If we cultivate this unknowable, hard-to-define part of us then maybe we’ll preserve ourselves from this total incursion of the corporate world, the political world, propaganda and so on.”

Smee recommends Dutch artists such Johannes Vermeer to capture that sense of stillness.  

“That incredible feeling of stillness and being inside this envelope of time.

“On the other side, I’m really interested in a painter like Francis Bacon. He would show recognisable human figures maybe sitting or standing or but with really distorted faces and something about them really captures that tension between the social selves that we present and this inner life.”

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