Every Sunday in the front of the magazine published by and delivered as part of The New York Times an essay is printed that generally has to do with popular culture. This past Sunday, Sam Anderson wrote a piece with the title “Bird’s Eye” and it begins with this sentence: “A huge portion of people’s time online is spent watching animals do silly things. We seem to have an easier time with the animals’ antics that with one another’s.” The illustrations accompanying Anderson’s article reinforce the idea that his subject matter from start to finish will deal with cat tricks, athletic dogs, etc., on the internet. That’s not exactly news, even if the subject may be popular culture. So, I was kind of at a loss as I read through it about why this particular topic would take up so much real estate in a very expensive and highly selective print and online news and features product: Where was he heading and why?
Finally, at the very end, after detailing some of the animal antics all of us adore and have “shared,” he gets to the point. I will reprint it here:
“I find it easier to identify with a parrot playing peekaboo or with a ferret stuck in a toilet-paper tube than I do with the loudest voices on Twitter. The internet, the great connector, ends up atrophying our most basic connective skill: that imaginative leap into another mind, the attempt to understand what it knows and believes, why it moves the way it moves.
“Not that it has ever been easy. It takes heroic investments of time and emotional intelligence and sincerity and mental effort. At the risk of sounding like the world’s tweediest professor, I would like to point out that your local library contains millions of pages designed to help with exactly this problem. We’re not going to snap our fingers and make one another more humane. But the commercial internet does seem aggressively engineered to prevent us from getting any closer. We are online constantly, looking for each other, and yet we are so rarely there to be seen. And so instead we watch the animals….”
I know it’s tacky, but I do wonder if Sam Anderson has ever heard of Facebook? or Instagram? There are ways to make connections that are human. I believe he has erected a straw man. But he also has a good point: If you want to visit faraway places if only to exercise your imagination, check out your local library.