Adam Gopnik surveys a year’s worth of books about the Internet in the new New Yorker. “A series of books explaining why books no longer matter is a paradox that Chesterton would have found implausible,” he says, and goes on from there. Like other such New Yorker surveys, reading this one feels something like taking a walk through the woods with a charming, clever, and jaded nature guide – “The squirrel is renowned as an industrious creature, but let’s not forget that it is also a flighty one” – but toward the end Gopnik makes a particularly penetrating point:
What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. … A social network is crucially different from a social circle, since the function of a social circle is to curb our appetites and of a network to extend them. Everything once inside is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet, and which all the Better-Nevers [that’s my clan!] rightly testify to, has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.
The idea that social networks have the effect of turning up rather than turning down the volume of our self-consciousness seems to me precisely right. The Net turns the social instinct inward, which ends up fencing in rather than freeing the self.