Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace: Severing the Internet Connection

Early humans had to hunt to survive, and evolution gave our species numerous advantages for that purpose. Our large brains and opposable thumbs provided us the ability to develop and wield tools. Socialization allowed us to pool our resources and abilities, and our social groups became greater than the sum of our parts. However, the most important tool early mankind possessed to aid their hunting efforts was the ability to run long distances. Biology professor David R. Carrier of the University of Utah explains in “The Energetic Paradox of Human Running and Hominid Evolution”:

Among cursorial mammals man is one of the best distance runners. While game animals are faster over short distances, they generally have less endurance than man…Tarahumara Indians chase deer through the mountains of northern Mexico until the animals collapse from exhaustion and then throttle them by hand.

In a feat known as persistence hunting, humans succeed at the hunt by running longer, not faster, than their prey. Mankind is good at endurance running for numerous physiological reasons. In particular, bipedal locomotion (which is more energy effective) and sweating (which improves heat dissipation) are major advantages according to Dr. Carrier. Beyond the physical though, humans are good at endurance running due to our mental faculties. Anyone who has run long distances before has entered into a flow state (i.e. gotten “into the zone”) during a run. Author Haruki Murakami elaborates in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue…I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.

Before you start, everyone hates the idea of running, but during and after the activity, you grow to love the flow state (a.k.a. the runner’s high) it imparts. Eventually, acquiring that flow state becomes a compulsive need. In short, running is addictive.

Addiction is an important evolutionary adaptation that helps you outrun a gazelle on the savannah. However, the helpful biological feature of addiction transforms into a troubling bug in modern society where survival is no longer the only desire we chase after.

Personally, I have had plenty of different vices over the years—food, video games, TV, and more. From time to time, I will pour my obsession into healthier pursuits like writing or studying. Although the consequences may be positive, the desire to write hours at a time, day after day, is still fundamentally an addiction. For years, my dad loved to eat and drink until he was diagnosed with diabetes. Now he compulsively diets and exercises. Certain people, myself included, are more predisposed to addiction than others, but addiction is still a fundamental aspect of the human psyche. All you can do is trade out one addiction for another.

This is what David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is about. In the world of the novel, the film Infinite Jest is so addictive people will starve to death while watching the film on repeat. However, David Foster Wallace’s characters are subject to all other sorts of vices—heroin, weed, sex, tennis, and more. Some of those addictions are harmful and need to be overcome; some are manageable and positive forces in the characters’ lives. By the end of the book, the audience realizes reading the book Infinite Jest itself has been an addiction. You do not complete 1,000+ pages of dense literature without developing a minor addiction. Both the actual book Infinite Jest and the fictional film Infinite Jest are addicting attempts by their creators to illicit an emotional response in the audience. Everything is addictive to humans; the only variable is where something falls on the addiction continuum, somewhere between healthy and harmful.

The vice that currently dominates my life is the internet, though it is certainly not a healthy addiction. When I escape from work or have a day off, there are goals I want to achieve—write more essays like this one, program, finish my novel. Yet I rarely put in significant work towards these goals. Instead, I waste away my free time by surfing Reddit, watching YouTube, checking out my friends’ superior lives on Facebook, and catching up with Netflix. My happiness and attention are temporarily satiated by these internet distractions, but then I spend the night lying in bed feeling empty.

David Foster Wallace frequently talked about the dangers of television, the prominent cultural force of the 90’s. All of his criticisms of TV are even more pertinent to today’s dominant medium, the internet. Here are his own words taken from Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself:

I think one of the reasons that I feel empty after watching a lot of TV, and one of the things that makes TV seductive, is that it gives the illusion of relationships with people…without having to give anything back but the most tangential of attention.

…And so TV is like candy in that it’s more pleasurable and easier than the real food. But it also doesn’t have any of the nourishment of real food…I’m willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people from television but I’m not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential shit of dealing with real people…

The technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right in low doses. But if that’s the main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re going to die.

…Each generation has different things that force the generation to grow up. Maybe for our grandparents it was World War Two…For us, it’s gonna be that at a certain point we’re gonna have to put away childish things and discipline ourself about how much time do I spend being passively entertained and how much time do I spend doing stuff that actually isn’t all that much fun minute by minute, but that builds certain muscles in me as a grown-up and a human being.

Watching a YouTube channel like h3h3Productions makes me feel as if though I personally know its creators, Ethan and Hila, but I am just sitting alone at my computer. Passively consuming short-form content is fine in small amounts, but I am addicted to the false sense of community the internet can provide. And it is much easier to watch YouTube videos than doing real creative work.

I need to break my internet addiction. My mind and body rot while time slips away from me, and so I am cutting myself off from the internet and getting rid of the wifi in my apartment. No longer will I pay Comcast to make me less productive. Netflix binges and Wikipedia deep dives and Youtube crawls are over. If I need to look something up online or put up a post on this site, I can (sparingly) use my phone or go to Starbucks. I encourage any reader of this essay to try doing the same.

Without the internet, the biggest obstacle to overcome will be boredom. In modern society, we have virtually eliminated the presence of boredom entirely. If you are stuck in line at the grocery store, you can check Reddit on your phone. If you are waiting for a friend to show up at your apartment, you can open your laptop and look at Twitter. If you are stuck on the toilet, you can grab your iPad and play a mobile game. We have removed every moment of boredom from our lives.

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, is about boredom. His final, unfinished novel is an even more impenetrably dense work than Infinite Jest about IRS employees. The book challenges the reader to be bored, at one point even requiring the audience to read the copyright page. But overcoming boredom is a challenge that bestows great gifts upon the victors. DFW writes in The Pale King:

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

But there is a difference between defeating boredom and running away from it. The internet performs the latter by removing boredom’s presence entirely. Instead, we need to wrap ourselves in boredom and use its crushing weight to force us into action. Bored people are the ones that react and write the Great American Novel. 1)With the internet out of my life, maybe I will even be able to finish The Pale King.

Being alone with my thoughts, minus memes and cat videos to distract me, is terrifying. Such alone time is spent focusing on squandered opportunities and personal flaws. Consuming content on the internet feels like it establishes human contact and alleviates the loneliness, but it provides hollow nourishment. Going outside or making art are much more effective at genuinely connecting with others. Eliminating the vast majority of the internet’s influence in my life should make me more productive, and that is a noble objective. But productivity is not the main goal. What I am really hoping to discover is a way out of loneliness.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. With the internet out of my life, maybe I will even be able to finish The Pale King.

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