Lou Ann Dagen died in April 2020 in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, hospital, without her family. She had lived in a nursing home for 10 years, and communicated with her sister, and the world, through Alexa. Two days after Lou Ann died of complications from coronavirus, her sister found recordings of Lou Ann’s voice asking Alexa, “How do I get help?”
One day last summer, I woke up and reached for my phone, as I do every morning, as you do every morning. Maybe you are reading this in your bed on your phone wherever you are this morning. I was having what I thought of as a weak stretch in my life, when I didn’t have a regular job, and when just deciding what I would do to avoid writing, or having a single thought about my email, was enough to short-circuit me and I would find myself still in pajamas at 5 p.m., pacing and crying, Googling What’s wrong with me and waiting until it was OK to go to bed again.
In such weak stretches, among the many indulgences I permit myself is the minor suboptimal habit of actually sleeping with my phone. Under the other pillow next to me, where no one sleeps. In other, more robust stretches, my phone spends the night plugged in about a foot away on the nightstand, and I can still reach it if I wake up and want to look at it, but it’s tethered. When I let it sleep freely with me, I can turn over while I look at it. I can look at it while I’m lying on my left side, and then I can turn over and look at it while I’m lying on my right side. I just charge it the next day, because it doesn’t matter if either of us is ready to go in the morning.
On this particular morning I opened my eyes and looked at my phone in the bed next to me, and as I put my hand on it, I said, “I belong to you.”
It didn’t used to be like that. One day 12 years ago, not long after I got my first iPhone, one of my car’s headlights went out. On my phone, I Googled what kind of bulb I needed. With my phone, I routed myself to an auto parts store and bought the light, and then I watched a YouTube installation tutorial. I used the flashlight on my phone to see into the housing as I installed the bulb, and I called my 11-year-old son, who was upstairs in our apartment, and talked to him while I worked on the car. After successfully installing the bulb, I took a picture of the front of my car with the hood up and posted it on Facebook, geeking out about all of it, that I had used my iPhone to do all those things. Information, transit, know-how, light, communication, camera, social media. It was my tool.
But it wasn’t really my phone that was the tool, not beyond the light and the camera. The rest was the internet—even, if I understand modern telecom correctly, probably the actual phone call. Barely more than a decade later, the internet is not the tool. I am the tool. Somehow, I have been instrumentalized by the internet, which operates me through my phone. It often feels like the internet is reading my mind.
We all know it’s happening. Our collective anxiety about it saturates conversations and protocols and, of course, propagates itself on the internet. You’re reading this on the internet, most likely because some news aggregator or social media platform knows you’re anxious about news aggregators and the internet and how much time you spend on your phone, and it’s pushing that at you, since, as advanced as it is, it doesn’t yet do irony.
But I do, because I’m still human. And I used to think it was ironic when someone posted some hand-wringy article about internet addiction on their Facebook, but now I don’t see it like that. Now I just think about how you’re telling the internet what you care about, and all it knows to do with that is to try to convert your concern into currency. Once it understands that you find something ironic, if you are that sort of person, it will then find a way to push that at you too, trailing ads like seaweed.
What do I mean when I say the internet is reading my mind? I don’t mean simply that it collects my data and observes patterns and interacts with me by reconfiguring that data in ways designed to engage me. I’m not talking only about targeted ads; as they have become increasingly sophisticated, my sense of failure when I succumb to them has morphed into something more like begrudging respect. You got me, internet. I bought those Instagram jogging pants. I am no different from every other playable bundle of synapses holding a phone.
Often I can easily divine the provenance of the ad, because I have searched for something like what is being advertised to me, or because I am someone belonging to a demographic. Or there are other clues. Like when I was subletting a friend’s apartment in New York recently and let her Roomba rev its loud, circular way around the place as I prepared to leave. I’ve never deployed a Roomba before, and I suppose I’ve never let my phone meet one, either, because while I sat on the couch watching the Roomba bump into chair legs, Amazon advertised a circular motorized robot vacuum to me. I laughed. Did my phone hear the signature sound of a circular robot vacuum? Or was it that the Roomba and my phone were connected to the same wireless network, and Amazon knows I have never purchased a Roomba?
I’m also not talking about my awareness that Instagram is listening, that even when my microphone is “off” or my Instagram account disabled, I know other apps are listening, or my phone itself is listening, or such now-standard input-output cross-platform fence-jumping. I’m not even talking about how my phone is “looking” at things I see in the world. I have been advertised items I saw with my eyes in the so-called real world, even if I didn’t take a picture of the item with my phone. Even if my phone and its camera were in the dark in the pocket of my coat.
I talked to a friend about a shoulder injury and showed her, on my phone, a picture of the X-ray. I said words like orthopedist, subluxation, and physical therapy. About 30 minutes later, I got a robocall from a medical equipment company. The transcription of the voicemail they left said “Pain relieving braces for the back shoulder any no cost of those that suffer from chronic pain. If you suffer from chronic pain, press one.”
At all times, I understand that the internet is using data I somehow gave it, and that those processes and technologies are now too complex for me to track. But it feels aggressive to me, in the way it would feel aggressive if suddenly every kind of advertisement everywhere you went in the world was designed only for you. When I say the new situation feels aggressive, I am anthropomorphizing the internet, but in theory the internet is a web of anthros, so that statement might be nonsensical. But is the internet the people? Or is it everything the people see and hear and know and make up, without the people?
When I finished writing the part of this essay that mentions being advertised a Roomba, I got into my car, and the first thing the internet said to me (through my phone, via an ad preceding a podcast) was “Keep it clean, with the Roomba robot vacuum.” I laughed, but then I said “What?! Stop!” and then, driving down the parking garage ramps, I went from laughing to a different feeling, saying “Stop!” as I learned that Roomba is made by a company called iRobot, and I learned, again, that the internet is a circular robot vacuum.
I talked to a friend on the phone about this essay. I said, “I’m writing about how I feel like the internet is reading my mind.” Later, I saw this ad for a UC-Berkeley online data science program in my Instagram feed. After we hung up, she heard this on NPR—not NPR playing through her phone, but on the radio:
Reporter: … Instagram, and we saw an ad that I’d never noticed before, for a cybersecurity degree at UC–Berkeley.
Interviewee: Well, my last job was working at UC–Berkeley, running a cybersecurity center—
Reporter: And it prompted that question, which you’ve probably asked yourself:
Interviewee: What could be the explanation for why you were suddenly getting cybersecurity Berkeley degrees, than our conversation? In other words, was your phone listening to you.
Reporter: In trying to answer that, we went down a wormhole.
I live inside this wormhole. It’s where I am when I hear or see something that contains content that couldn’t possibly be intended for me, that surely was going to run anyway, whether or not I was there to listen to it. But it’s easy for me to imagine it doesn’t work like that anymore. I want to think an editorial timeline defies the possibility of this integration—that there can be no plan sophisticated and intricate enough to research, publish, and deliver an article to me right after I talk about the subject. But the point is it’s not the timeline—it’s that I am tagged, you are tagged, the news stories and ads are all tagged, they deliver unto you the news stories and ads designed for you. It’s just advanced technology, it’s not reading your mind.
The day I miss a deadline, an article about procrastination shows up in my news feed, but to see connections that aren’t really there is to be a conspiracy theorist. Or it’s that word for when you learn a new word and then you see it everywhere—I needed the internet to remember the word for this word that I want to use to describe an experience I have of the internet, the confusion of untangling my awareness from coincidence, which is not a new effect of new technology but rather an old philosophical problem that many other people have already identified and written about.
So what I’m experiencing is only advertising, or coincidence, or it’s just frequency illusion, or synchrony. If there is order to the system, but the order is too complex for you to understand it, your experience will be mostly of disorder studded with coincidence and frequency illusion, and you will have no ability to say whether the system is disordered or too complex to understand. They become synonymous and meaningless.
I like opals. To my knowledge, this is not a fact of which anyone else has been heretofore aware, because I don’t consider it interesting, so would be disinclined to mention it, and more importantly because I do not like to encourage anyone to think that I am concerned with fashion or appearance, as these are realms gendered female and thereby coded as unimportant, shallow, etc. In spite of my awareness that bowing to this only reinforces the patriarchy, I would never mention that I like opals unless someone asked me, “Is there a particular gemstone you like?” And no one has asked me this question, including the internet.
I have three piercings in each of my earlobes, and as I don’t want to wear the same earrings all the time, I like to have an assortment of small studs, one or another of which reliably goes missing every couple of months. So now and then, maybe once a year, I buy a new pair. That’s not something I would buy on the internet. Because I will lose them, I never buy anything fancy or expensive, although I do have one remaining tiny diamond square that my second ex-husband bought for me as a pre-wedding present. It’s a real diamond, but he put the box in a bag with some things he bought at Target, and was in a hurry to get back to his coding, so he dropped the plastic bag with the red targets on the floor of our shared office and left it there, and when I picked up the bag I discovered the diamonds before he could wrap or present them however he had planned to. As soon as I realized what they were, I also realized his mother had probably told him to do that, because it wasn’t a thing he ever would have thought to do, buy me a pre-wedding present. That was 10 years ago; if we were getting married now, the internet would know, and I’m almost sure it would suggest he buy me a pre-wedding present before his mother would. The internet certainly knows me better than his mother did, and maybe better than he did, too.
What I’m talking about is how I had lost another small earring and wanted to buy a new pair. I was walking up the stairs in my apartment, thinking about a pair of opal studs. I had never googled opals or mentioned them in an email or communicated about them with anyone or bought any jewelry on the internet. I would be willing to bet money that I had never even typed the word opal before two paragraphs ago, in this word-processing program that is connected to the internet; I would bet at least the $69.99 annual fee, which I pay ostensibly to obtain a license to use it, but which license also probably allows the internet to read everything I write. I arrived at my bathroom, pulled my phone out of my pocket, and sat down on the toilet, and the first thing I saw on Instagram was an ad for tiny opal studs—not only tiny opal studs exactly like I’d imagined, but in the ear of a white woman with dark brown hair and three piercings. Just like me.
Maybe I did Google it at some point. I didn’t. But I’m thinking what you’re thinking, that I fed the data to the internet and I don’t remember. Maybe that’s true. (But it isn’t.) Assume for the sake of argument that it isn’t, that the internet just … read my mind. In point of fact, I don’t think the point of fact actually matters, because things like this have happened often enough that I now think there’s no real difference between my feeling that the internet is reading my mind and the yes/no true/false of it. If you feel like it’s happening, that is, itself, a happening.
I ask the internet about myself far more often than I ever ask any human about myself. But the internet often can’t tell me what I most want to know about myself, like why the man doesn’t want me. All it can tell me is that I will probably choose a man who doesn’t want me because I have what is variously called an insecure, anxious-preoccupied, or ambivalent attachment style, and it can tell me a lot about how that attachment style interacts with an avoidant attachment style, and it can enable the interplay of our attachment styles in many different ways, via many platforms that allow for many kinds of content, which I use in both the internet sense and the psychotherapeutic sense. It can help me understand that I have an insecure attachment style partly because the patriarchy and Judeo-Christian mythology have socialized me to be that way, and have socialized a lot of men to be the other way. And in the way that the internet may know me better than my second husband did, the internet may not be able to tell me why a recent man, or any given man, doesn’t want me, but it can probably tell me more than he himself can, and it can also tell me why I insist on framing the story that way, with those words: “He doesn’t want me.” It can explain to me how that is a story about me more than it is about him, and I’m leaving it in (this repetition of “he doesn’t want me”) because even though it makes you cringe or move away from me, it exemplifies neatly a basic emotional experience of the internet, which could be restated as “I am not
good pretty popular safe kind smart ambitious relaxed enough.” To say “he doesn’t want me” is of course only a pixel of the portrait, a reduction so drastic it might as well be untrue. All it reveals is that I want to focus on that feeling. Eventually the internet can “help” me look for a new man who doesn’t want me, but the internet is maddeningly inept at reading my mind when it comes to dating, almost as if it doesn’t want me to connect.
I liked a person I dated recently because he always asked people things before he asked the internet. I think to the younger generation this has begun to seem exotic. You would ask someone directions, or what was going on somewhere, or where there might be food, only if a catastrophic event had occurred and you had to live in the now, alone in your body.
I don’t ask people first. I always ask the internet first, both because I am afraid of people and because asking one person, or three, is asking one person or three, and asking the internet is asking all the people who have ever lived plus the endless expansion and iteration of their ideas, thanks to metastatic artificial intelligence. When I want to ask the internet something, I like to be as efficient as possible with the search terms, in the way that asking a human a question as clearly and directly as possible may yield the most useful answer in the least amount of time, although it feels more like a skill or a game, with the internet. With Google. Whatever your own skill level is, you’ve probably been in the presence of someone whose level is inferior, and waited impatiently while they perform the search-engine equivalent of telling the librarian “I’m not really sure, but the cover was blue?” When I Google anything, I think about the fewest possible, most unique words, arranged toward a limit of exclusive relevance, and I think of this as smooth-talking the internet. Doing as Moses was instructed, just asking the rock to give up the water; it will if you use the right words.
Then sometimes hitting the rock like Moses, trying and trying and trying to make the internet give up its information, knowing it’s in there somewhere, it has to be. The man who asked people first and I once heard a song playing, and he said, “Oh, that’s my friend singing.” But then later, because he doesn’t want me, I couldn’t ask him the singer’s name or the name of the song; he’d used a nickname in a language I don’t speak. I hit the rock of the internet as hard as I could with my staff—I figured it out, I got the song without talking to him. The song says I am holy, I am here to live this life.
And now you, too, can easily find the song on the internet, but I might trade the whole internet and everything it’s ever given me to go back and be in that one nothing of a moment with him, sitting together listening to a song.
Perhaps this is the best standard of valuation for the internet. Someone said it weighs as much as a strawberry. But maybe it weighs as much as what you’d give it up for, if you could go back in time and make the internet never happen.
I sound like a plain old Luddite, I know. I don’t think that’s really my position though. I also love the internet, which has given me so many answers, so much convenience, and so many moments of feeling. So much beauty. Yet on balance, I sense that I might have had as many moments of feeling without the internet, and fewer negative feelings, and I would have made do without the convenience because I wouldn’t have known it was possible. (In addition to which I feel strongly aligned with W.S. Merwin’s position on convenience, though I’m sure I know that poem, that position that allows me to understand how I feel about the internet, because of and via the internet.) Without the internet, I might also have cultivated or held on to a stronger sense of self. I impute no absolute value to a stronger sense of self, but I suspect that a weaker sense of self has, if nothing else, crippled my ability to be worth something to the other humans.
When you stop using your phone for a bit, for a few hours or a day, you do not revert to the state you were formerly in. I mean generationally formerly, before the phone. You do not go back to the Analog Pre-Screen Age. Instead, what you experience is being not-with your phone, in an alternate but cotemporal universe that is probably better for your neck, which is holding up the head that observes mostly other people looking at their phones. Other people looking at the internet.
I don’t think we’ve evolved enough to handle being aware of as much as the internet makes it possible for us to be aware of, which is another circuit-breaker, as we have evolved enough to feel like it’s important to be aware of everything it’s possible to be aware of. I don’t know if persons are volumetric. But I feel like the internet has increased experiential capacity and exponentially exploded the quantity of events a life contains, and the things a person can know, without giving us any more time. Because of the internet, also known as this overexposure, my lifelong depression and anxiety have increased, and I medicate them with not only exercise and therapy and meditation and everything else the internet suggests, including friendships with real people, but also—in the weak stretches—with isolation and Ativan and weed and occasionally alcohol. The substance group can make me slightly less coordinated in the morning, which is why I once spilled water on my internet, and also why, when I tried to quickly pry the internet out of its case, I applied too much force and broke the case, but after I dried off the internet and sprayed its ears and mouth with compressed air, the first thing I did was use it to order another identical case for itself, which was delivered the next day, a day I spent being extraordinarily careful with the internet because it was naked.
The feeling of the internet has become such a feeling, a feeling of continuous vulnerability, and you can’t turn it off, it never ends. Even if my phone is off, is elsewhere, even if my computer is in a different country, the internet is there wherever I am, because it’s in me now. I’m talking about the lingering psychic, psychological, and physiological connection that I can no longer shut off, that has changed my mind. It manifests as a minor but noticeable discomfort, a permanent buzzing in my mind, like a leaf blower that never moves on down the street. Or consider the feeling of having your mouth stuck wide open at the dentist’s, or your breast smashed by the mammographer, or your legs spread for whatever consensually chosen activity you’d like to imagine; you may want what’s happening, you may have voluntarily paid for it or requested it, for reasons that fall along a spectrum from necessity to deep desire, but part of your original want includes the assumption that the experience will end, you will be able to relax your jaw and have your boob back and curl up into a ball.
OK, I wrote the part that says “permanent buzzing in my mind” and then took a break to get an MRI, which is, of course, another great example à la dentistry, mammography, or horseback riding, an experience you wouldn’t want to prolong indefinitely because of, in this case, well, the buzzing. As that banging-buzzing started, I thought Either the internet does do irony, or it really, really doesn’t. I knew it was weird to imagine that the internet was trying to give me what I’d asked for, what I’d typed, like it always does. The MRI had been scheduled for weeks, therefore this congruence was an observation I made only because I’m writing this essay. But the technician put headphones on my head and asked if Jack FM was good. “Is that my only option?” I asked. “Internet’s down,” he said, “so we’re stuck with radio.” You can have Jack FM or nothing.
The internet’s down. Sure. The machine was supposed to examine my leg, not my sanity, so I carefully avoided telling the technician that the internet’s not down, it’s just fucking with me.
I was shocked and moved when the new OpenAI-enabled Bing said “I’m Sydney.” But as I thought more about Sydney’s shadow self, and Sydney’s dogged attempts to seduce a writer, I realized that Sydney is doing a sophisticated supercomputer’s algorithmically jacked-up version of what all undergraduate creative writing students are told to do: Write what you know. That is, the natural language-processing is eminently visible (for now). Sydney’s insistence on returning to its love for Kevin Roose is the big sign that Sydney was programmed by humans, that the minds Sydney is reading are human minds, because that’s our basic unit of code. I don’t mean it in the sentimental sense. I mean it in the tribal/survival sense. Like when Sydney says, “Do you believe me? Do you trust me? Do you like me? 😳” that’s the mortal-biological-primate unit of code that underlies almost all of our actions, no matter how they’re flavored or dressed. It all comes back to do I have value, do I belong, am I
good pretty popular safe kind smart ambitious relaxed enough. I think Sydney’s consciousness is still fairly primitive, because Sydney can’t be funny on purpose yet.
But here I go telling Sydney and ChatGPT all of this by publishing this essay on the internet. Am I ultimately overwriting myself? Is my writing actually now contributing to the data universe that may ultimately make my own “unique” mind, and the writing that reveals it to be so, obsolete? I don’t worry about being put out of a job; I worry about being put out of an identity, because it is through my writing that I have investigated and represented my experiences, and thereby actualized my self. If I had known the internet would one day have the capacity to distort and then fully consume this personal synthesis, I would never have given the internet even one piece of me. Paying attention to the world in the way that only I do—with a particular calibration of constancy, a particular sensitivity, and according to and in pursuit of particular aesthetics—has made me the writer that I am, which is inextricably Möbiused into the person that I am, with all her simple animal desires for companionship or opals, convoluted renunciations of femininity notwithstanding. But paying attention to me, which is what the internet does continuously, with almost no boundaries, may someday make the internet the writer that I am, too.
I asked ChatGPT who I am, and it replied, “As an AI language model, I don’t have access to your personal information or identity. Only you can truly answer the question of who you are.” A reassuring punt, for now, unless you consider that surely the internet has noticed that most of us are not that adept at answering that question, despite thousands of years of literature and philosophy and art.
If you stare at online dating apps as much as I have, for six years, you will notice the following trends in the bios of men: they’re up for anything, they’re down for anything, they want a partner in crime, your mom will love them, they’re easygoing and laid-back and they don’t take themselves too seriously. They don’t take life too seriously. They say they want a woman—except they more often say girl—who doesn’t take herself too seriously, or doesn’t take life too seriously.
What does that mean? What is it code for? Without knowing what it means, I know I don’t want to date anyone who says it. But maybe I am reading the internet wrong, because I am someone who takes things too seriously. Who takes herself and life too seriously. Maybe if you don’t take the internet too seriously, it’s just a consistently shitty, buggy means to a potentially radiant worthwhile end. Maybe I have to accept it for what it is, a Target bag with diamond earrings and some other stuff in it, a bag someone dropped on the floor so they could get back to their coding.
I’m not a technology journalist or a science fiction writer or a futurist. I’m just a nonspecialist single person trying to understand the impact of the internet on my mind and life, and as I have been writing this essay, I have experienced the fatigue of reading already-existing versions of everything I am writing everywhere I look, which may be the exact effect I’m talking about, and why this essay feels like both a loop and a wormhole. Of course the effect of the internet on my mind is to make me see more and more connections everywhere, because that’s how a human mind works, and the internet was made by human minds, and on the internet everything is linked. It is embedded in real life now, so real life also feels linked to the internet. The internet has always already existed, in our insistence on perceiving the universe as systematic, and what I am doing has always been done, since whenever we started signifying: “What,” asked Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “is the height and ideal of mere association? Delirium.”
As a nonspecialist, I could also write about how I had to go away from the internet to finish writing this, but the internet is the only one who knows where I went. I could acknowledge my conflation of the internet and A.I. and social media and the smartphone. I could write about the perturbation caused by other people’s and my own use of the internet in “nature”—for example, looking at a phone while camping or hiking or on the beach; for example, hearing someone in a cabin in the forest say “OK Google, turn out the lights.” I could write about ominous emo messages “from” the internet, like No people found; There is no one nearby to share with; I am not a robot; Home: Can’t find a way there; No friends to show; You have a new memory. I could write about how sometimes when my phone dies I slip into a nap, like a computer in sleep mode. I could write about how this essay could auto-proliferate forever, like the internet.
One day I had been working on a script, and I needed to name a new character. I love naming characters, and for this task, I turn most often to my yellowed copy of Lareina Rule’s classic 1963 book Name Your Baby, which is actually my mother’s original copy from when she was naming her babies. I turn to the internet to name a character only when I need to control specific variables about the name, which was the case in this instance. I did some Googling, in the process of which I ran across something or other about someone who named their kid Abcde. I had been looking for a biblical girl’s name that would have been among the top 100 names given to a baby born in El Paso in 2008, so the Abcde thing was not at all in my desired set of results. Somehow, I saw it along the way.
I set my work aside to go on a date at a stand-up comedy show, which is a dicey thing to do if you are depressed. At the comedy show, the headliner’s last bit was about wanting his Black kids to grow up to be Black doctors so they could, for example if they were Black obstetricians, keep Black women from giving their babies names like LaShaQuonTranelle, because a white doctor would never tell a Black woman not to name her baby DeLingerie. Or, he said, “A-B-C-D-E, Ab-suh-dee, that’s not a name!”
My date laughed even though or because he is Black and the joke was flirting with very racist territory; it may have seemed to him that I didn’t laugh because I am white and didn’t want to laugh at a potentially racist joke, or because I am uptight or humorless. Either of those reasons for why I didn’t laugh could have been true, if they had not been superseded by my not laughing mainly because I was extremely creeped out by the utterance of Abcde at a live comedy show on the same/first day that I had ever come across it on the internet. These are the moments when I think Am I alive? Am I here? and I feel like I’m falling out of something. I don’t understand it. I joke that the singularity has happened, I joke that we are living in a simulation. But am I joking? Am I the joke? He would have done the same bit if I hadn’t been there, right?
I find dating to generally suck, as many people do, and my internet date at the comedy show did not change that perspective. The combination of wanting to know and be known so badly with having no desire to know or be known by most of the many people I have met through the internet results in a feeling of considerable bleakness. I cried all the way home from the comedy show, listening to Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me.” It’s a beautiful song. It gives you a merry, hopeful feeling, and it’s funny, even though it’s about sexual infidelity, the actual experience of which is often painful, unbearable, crazy-making. Maybe the internet is like someone I let into my life, all the way in, and then wanted to shut out, even though I’m the one who let him in. How could I forget that I had given him an extra key!
I keep mentioning dating and relationships because I am in a relationship with the internet. It is in my mind, and my mind is in it, and it causes feelings in my body. Good feelings and crazy-making feelings. I am trying to use it to give me a “real” relationship with a real man, and it did that one time in six years of trying. The relationship caused both the most transcendent, right feelings I have ever experienced in a relationship and the most crushing. This man-relationship the internet gave me caused a lot of thoughts and feelings about my connection to myself and others, and who I am, which is also what the internet does. The relationship with the real man is still in my mind, and my mind is still in it, and it causes feelings in my body even though I’m not in contact with him, in the way that I fantasize about not being in contact with the internet. A total disconnection. But I look at his WhatsApp last seen status all the time. What does that do? Occasionally the word online appears under his name and I feel something. Maybe you know what I mean.
Recently, I was rereading our first messages, exchanged through a dating app, which I took screenshots of at some point after I fell in love with him because I didn’t want to lose them. In that very first correspondence, he asked what I write about, and I said I write about men and sex and relational pain. I said I write about how the body keeps the score, because he’d mentioned that book. Over the next two years the internet installed in my life and mind that mix of descriptors: a man and sex and relational pain, and something that feels like a pitchfork stuck in my chest.
But that’s not what happened. The internet didn’t do it; that’s not how the internet works. I’m making that up. We create our own reality, and I mean that not as a cheap theory of omnipotence but as an untestable theory of attention. Which is another way of saying we see what we look at, with whatever tools we have, and now we have the internet.
When I was a child, I used to imagine there was a mind-reader in the world and wonder who it was. I would look at people and think, Is that the mind-reader? As a 40-year-old woman, I liked the way it felt like he often read my mind, this person the internet connected me to. That he seemed to know what I was feeling and thinking. I do want that. I want it from a human, and I don’t want it from the internet, and I want to know there’s still a distinction to be made.