Earlier this summer, Publishers Weekly reported on the surprising decline of e-book sales and on whether this signaled the first pangs of digital fatigue. Certainly, we all seem to be getting digitally exhausted these days. There are emails to check, Facebook posts to like, Instagram photos to upload, Tinder and Grinder profiles to swipe, emojis to learn, and endless text messages. We spend our days navigating tangled links of spam and clickbait to finally return to our beds at night—where we unwind by spending hours scrolling through social media posts.
Digital fatigue isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s simply our immune system responding to a decade of hyperconnectivity. And yet it doesn’t look like we’re at a place of total exhaustion. If anything, we seem to be growing increasingly addicted to our devices. I find myself checking my phone five times a day—or 20, or 30. Before bed I check one last time, and upon waking, I log in to see what messages I’ve missed.
I’d like to think I’m the sole addict to the electronic drug that is my data plan, but looking around, I’m not alone. At stoplights, I see other drivers sending off one more message before the light turns green. Along the streets, people of all ages are holding their devices as if caring for an exceptionally dear child. Next to us in the restaurant is a family eating dinner in silence as they individually play with their smartphones. And at bus stops, grown men and women are playing tiny games on their screens like children. If we’re approaching an age of total digital addiction, we’re presently in the binge-drinking phase before our final recovery.
Though it’s tempting to think the next generation is turning away from the seduction of cyberspace, the drop-off in e-readers may have less to do with a wish to return to books than a general lack of desire to read at all. Perhaps I’m jaundiced from a decade of teaching, but I hear the daily complaints of millennials when I assign an essay longer than five pages. The 20-plus-page stories of Baldwin, Chekhov, and Kafka are skimmed, and my creative-writing classes have to be weaned from producing stories based on television plots. When I ask students about their reading habits, they mention having a couple of tabs open at a time—the assigned PDF class reading in one, the latest episode of Game of Thrones playing on low volume in another.
In my short story “The Cartographers,” a character named Cynthia enjoys reading actual books. Her techie boyfriend can’t understand why she’d spend endless hours reading, when memory sticks would let her memorize novels in minutes. As much as I’d like to think we’ll never want the fictional technologies I write about, I’m certain many of my students would gladly download novels directly to their memories if that option were available; they’re already digitally multitasking while skimming the great literature of the world.
I understand the urge to skim these days. How many more Facebook articles can I actually read? How many more emails? Though I want to pigeonhole millennials as tech addicted, it’s often my 13-year-old who tells me to stop using my phone as I attempt to send one last email—and then one more.
Perhaps the selfie stick is our flag of surrender. There’s something disheartening about the autonomy it provides: the solo smiles later posted to an anonymous online community, the collection of phones extended among masses of individual tourists who once asked one another for favors. The selfie stick is the perfect symbol of the coming era of digital fatigue: it captures our profiles all the better so we can finally witness our solitude. Perhaps, like the digital natives who wish to feel paper between their fingers again, we’re beginning a departure from an obsessive dependence on a globally interconnected technology that leaves us increasingly isolated.
Or, as the new predictions are showing, it might be all of us—the millennials, X and Y generations, and baby boomers—who will need younger generations to teach us how to disconnect. Decades from now, our grandchildren will visit us at nursing homes, where we’ll be eternally crushing candy and launching birds. “Grandpa, it’s time to put the virtual reality away,” they’ll say, placing their hands over our eye-screens. “Grandma,” they’ll whisper, before covering our devices with their palms, “it’s sunny outside.”
Alexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His debut novel, Children of the New World, was published by Picador in September.