The Conversation

  • Written by Stephanie Trigg, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor of English Literature, University of Melbourne

Review: Quarterly Essay, Net Loss, by Sebastian Smee

Guilty as charged. Yes, I spend too much time on social media. Yes, I have become more easily distracted. Yes, I have given up too much personal information to various apps and websites over the years. And yes, I have read a number of articles that articulate precisely how foolish, or at least, misguided this behaviour is.

And so when I opened up Sebastian Smee’s Quarterly Essay, Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age, I was primed to feed my own anxiety as I read his confessions: first, about how much time he spends on his phone, checking messages, listening to podcasts, watching videos, keeping an eye on Twitter and the news; and second, how conscious he is that he has given over various degrees of information about himself to the various interfaces and apps that relentlessly market this information on to other agencies in order to market other products back to the reduced versions of our selves we willingly project online.

Read more: Addicted to social media? Try an e-fasting plan

The art of distraction: Sebastian Smee's Quarterly Essay Quarterly Essay If these were Smee’s confessions, I could easily make them my own too. Indeed, this is one of the ironies of contemporary digital life: the more Facebook, for example, extends its global reach, the more people can become instantly aware of discussions on Facebook about Facebook’s use and sale of the data it accumulates through our global conversations about why and how we use it, and its affects on our sense of self. Smee is concerned with the fate of the “inner life” in contemporary culture: how we can any longer preserve the illusion that we each have a private inner core of being or selfhood that is untouched by the dispersal and dissemination of our public selves across a wide range of media. Has not that “inner life”, he asks, become weakened and thinned out, as a result of our perpetual, seemingly uncontrollable engagement with the algorithms and formulae of digital life and the surveillance cultures and technologies of late capitalism: Once nurtured in secret, protected by norms of discretion or a presumption of mystery, this ‘inner’ self today feels harshly illuminated and remorselessly externalised, and at the same time flattened, constricted and quantified. Smee argues that we have become complicit in this process of our own commodification and “reduction”. We are, he writes, betrayed … by ourselves — by our willingness, what can often seem our eagerness, to make ourselves smaller He claims, sometimes directly, sometimes more cautiously, that human nature is changing: “Today, being human means being distracted. It is our new default setting”. This kind of claim is not new, of course. Anxiety about the contemporary age and its difference from the past dates back at least to medieval culture. More recently (but over a century ago), Virginia Woolf famously suggested that human nature changed “on or about December 1910”. Indeed, Smee’s machinic metaphor — “our new default setting” — demonstrates the extent to which industrialisation naturalised the idea of humanity as something that can be programmed. This metaphor would have been impossible, say, in the renaissance. Nor is distraction a new phenomenon. In Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778), a well-educated young girl, brought up in the country, is astonished to find how little attention is paid to the music and singing at the opera and other London entertainments: There was an exceeding good concert, but too much talking to hear it well. Indeed I am quite astonished to find how little music is attended to in silence; for, though every body seems to admire, hardly any body listens. Smee is not particularly interested in history, though. He offers many instances of what he sees as the problem: the way social media and our digital selves offer us only diminished, impoverished versions of ourselves that threaten to displace our inner lives. These lives are “tangled knots of narrative, with feelings and hurts and elaborate, fantastical dreams, which can be as enduring as mountains or as fleeting as clouds”, he writes. To help us register what he thinks we are losing, Smee takes us through a range of examples from literature and art. Chekhov looms largest in his intellectual landscape, as a writer who most eloquently dramatizes the schism between the inside and the outside of the self, between a “true core” and a “sham exterior”. Cézanne, too, offers a vision of the self and “life” that is “fluid and multifaceted, like a rippling mosaic”. Smee insists that these rich and intense visions of human life are increasingly lost to us. Yet his essay is itself a powerful demonstration of the inner life at work. It is not structured by argumentative sequence, empirical data or any theoretical work on contemporary digital culture; if anything, Smee defers judgments, sets problems aside, asks questions and refuses to push further. Net Loss is a classic essay in Montaigne’s sense: experimenting and testing ideas (the French word essai comes from Latin exagium, “weighing”: itself appropriate to Smee’s astrological identity as a Libra, another account of the self he toys with then sets aside). At one point he is tempted to read another story by Chekhov as “a prescient commentary” on the envy-inducing affects of Facebook. “I won’t go there,” he says. “But I will say two things that strike me about it now”. For all his fear about loss, or losing the inner life by giving too much of it away through panic at our own mortality, Smee’s own choices, questions, worries, recollections, selections from books still structure his essay, which juxtaposes memories, quotations and descriptions of works of art, music, cinema and literature. The essay is a mosaic of cultural allusion that is meaningful precisely because it is held together by the narrative self that analyses and makes these connections. It is an example of distraction as an art form.

Authors: Stephanie Trigg, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor of English Literature, University of Melbourne

Read more


Scott Morrison at Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce

QUESTION: I suppose one question I'll ask is about the role of social media, YouTube, Facebook. And the sort of thought process that we’re having as a nation of how we can create that sort of societ...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Delivering the rail links Western Sydney needs

The Morrison and Berejiklian Governments will ensure the Western Sydney International (Nancy Bird Walton) Airport has a metro rail line in time for its opening.   The Prime Minister said his Gover...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Nancy-Bird Walton immortalised at Western Sydney Airport

Australia’s biggest aviation project will honour one of the nation’s trailblazing stars of the sky.   The $5.3 billion Western Sydney Airport will officially become Western Sydney International (N...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Intense Growth As Car Next Door Launch Capital Raise

Releasing internal revenue figures for the first time, Car Next Door has achieved marketplace revenue of $10m last year and is on track to almost double that again in 2019 as it marks the start of a...

Car Next Door - avatar Car Next Door

How two 30-year old’s made 4 million in 2 years with coffee

Try ordering a “coffee” and chances are you’ll be met with a bored eyeroll and the expectation to specify “how” you’d like your coffee. Will it be, cold-drip, filter, nitro, hell let’s go old school...

Sophia Day - avatar Sophia Day

Why savvy female entrepreneurs need branding more than ever

Branding isn’t new, but it’s become a integral factor in any business success, especially for female entrepreneurs. With an oversupply of skincare, hair and beauty products, fashion accessories, hea...

Stella Gianotto - avatar Stella Gianotto


The Gold Coast is famous for fun but it is also famous for horrible traffic issues

The Gold Coast is a great place for a holiday but there are problems that tourists need to be aware of. The Gold Coast airport is a busy place. Thousands of visitors arrive every day from around the ...

Holiday Centre - avatar Holiday Centre

Older generation Australians are embracing solo travel

Allianz predicts a rise in solo travel in 2019, revealing those most likely to ‘go -it-alone’ among the 50+ age group   The popular ‘solo travel’ trend is predicted to continue in 2019 with mor...

Media Release - avatar Media Release

Fun Things You Must Do In Perth

Perth: Sun, sand and 19 beaches might seem to sum up the city, but not quite. The sunniest capital city in Australia offers so much more for you to do. Regardless of what your idea of fun is, you wi...

News Company - avatar News Company