Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 29, 2018

Net Loss, the Inner Life in the Digital Age (2018), by Sebastian Smee (Quarterly Essay #72)

This Quarterly Essay feels as if it’s written just for me.  Net Loss, the Inner Life in the Digital Age by art critic for the Washington post Sebastian Smee explores the doubts we are beginning to have about social media.

Not long ago I had a conversation about my remarkable luck at the Louvre, when it just so happened that The Spouse and I were the only two people in the gallery that houses the Mona Lisa.  ‘Did you take a photo?’ I was asked.  There was mutual puzzlement.  Hers was about why I didn’t, so that I could remember it and prove it happened, and mine because it was an unforgettable magical experience and my friends don’t need me to ‘prove’ my story.  This conversation still bothers me because it represents a gulf between the kind of memories I have (and like to share) and those of people who are more connected to their phones than I am.  I think it says something about a wariness of ‘fake news’ too.

This is the blurb for Net Loss, from Fishpond:

What is the inner life? And is it vanishing in the digital age?

Throughout history, artists and philosophers have cultivated the deep self, and seen value in solitude and reflection. But today, through social media, wall-to-wall marketing, reality television and the agitation of modern life, everything feels illuminated, made transparent. We feel bereft without our phones and their cameras and the feeling of instant connectivity. It gets hard to pick up a book, harder still to stay with it.

In this eloquent and profound essay, renowned critic Sebastian Smee brings to the surface the idea of inner life – the awareness one may feel in front of a great painting or while listening to extraordinary music by a window at dusk or in a forest at night. No nostalgic lament, this essay evokes what is valuable and worth cultivating – a connection to our true selves, and a feeling of agency in the mystery of our own lives. At the same time, such contemplation puts us in an intensely charged relationship with things, people or works of art that are outside us.

If we lose this power, Smee asks, what do we lose of ourselves?

To explain what he means by ‘inner life’, Smee quotes Chekhov describing Gurov, a character from his story The Lady with the Dog.  ‘He had two lives’ writes Chekhov,

one open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret.  And through some strange, perhaps accidental conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth — such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club … his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities — all that was open.  And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. (p.3)

Smee sets out to explore this idea that we all have an inner life with its own history of metamorphosis — rich, complex and often obscure, even to ourselves, but essential to who we are.  He thinks this elusive inner self is under threat as companies shape our new reality with their powerful tools.

They promise to connect us on social media; to entertain us on reality TV, YouTube and Facebook; to identify, target and even diagnose us through surveys, questionnaires and tests; to win our votes, enlist our support and market their wares and services.  All this is being done.  New efficiencies are being found.  Meanwhile, the idea of a dark, inner being, silent, inaccessible — the part of us that comes into view while standing by a window at dusk, while walking in the suburbs at midnight or while listening to a melancholy song — has come to seem exotic and unfamiliar, like a rumoured lake in a dark forest, a living body of water which no one has seen for years.  Is this idea of the self, from which whole histories of literature and art have been woven a mere fiction? […] To the extent that it exists at all, it seems to have no place in public discourse.  Even in discussions of art, it is ignored, thwarted, factored out.  The senses with which we could have grasped, recognised and nurtured it are atrophying. (p.4)

A year ago I would have scoffed at Smee’s claim that the obscurity and unknowability of our inner selves is a nuisance, perhaps even a threat, to the social media companies. But back in April of this year 2018 I advised the readers who follow my Facebook page that I was abandoning it.  I haven’t posted on FB since, though I check notifications once a week in case a particular friend who’s important to me gets in touch.  But as the weeks and months went by, the notifications changed.  None of them are from people I know.  They are all from Facebook itself, trying to manipulate me into re-engaging, nagging me about how long it’s been since I’ve posted, and telling me about posts by my friends or scouring my friends’ circles of friends and relations for people I might want to ‘friend’.  What FB doesn’t know is that I’m now more in touch with my f2f friends because I have more time.  And I’m using old media to do it – phone calls, greeting cards, personal emails and lunches and excursions together.  Not that FB cares about that.  FB is just cross that I’m not seeing their ads any more and they can’t sell my out-of-date profile to the highest bidder.

Like Smee, I’ll be honest, I don’t particularly feel like an algorithm. Like Zadie Smith, I feel that we tend to ‘reduce’ ourselves in order to ‘fit’ the software designed by social media companies.  I don’t want to be a disembodied self whose attention is harnessed by Facebook for its own purposes.  I think that now I have enhanced wellbeing because I’m immune to the short-term, dopamine driven feedback loops that […] are destroying how society works.  I no longer see things which used to bother me: the trolls, the lack of civil discourse and cooperation, or the misinformation or mistruth.  I have turned my back on comment threads that show how quickly people fall into abuse, sarcasm and general nastiness.  (My Twitter account is very carefully curated so that I don’t see it there either.)

Jean Siméon Chardin -The Young Schoolmistress (Wikipedia Commons*)

I love the way Smee uses the work of writers and artists to convey his ideas, and I was charmed by what he has to say about the intimacy between teachers and students when the relationship is working [and] something enigmatic is allowed to occur.  We teachers more prosaically call this the ah-ha moment, but it is a special meeting of minds, a bridge from one inner life to another.  One of the things the teacher-student relationship does is establish a formal structure for the hope, the intuition, that you are not alone.  I used to feel this in the library, reading stories, when the children were together with me in the same fictional world.  It is a wondrous thing to have a class in the palm of your hand, when they are equally lost in the world of Sir Gawain and his predicaments, or stifling a tear over the Little Match Girl who has no parents to love her.

Towards the end of this captivating essay, Smee goes some way towards explaining why I didn’t need —or more importantly, want —my Mona Lisa moment immortalised in a photo.  He references art critic Peter Schjeldahl…

…talking about the problem of paintings which have become so popular, so well-known (think Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’, Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, or Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’) that they exist more as a shared resource in a communal image bank than as a specific image with any hope of activating an individual’s imagination.  How to get back to the thing itself, before it hardened into a cliché? (p.53)

Well, in the silent privacy of an empty gallery, I think I did as Smee suggests, that is, I lasered in on the painting itself and saw it independently of the thousands of reproductions I’ve seen at other times.  When I see the Mona Lisa now, I see it in my mind’s eye, just as it was on that day, unfiltered by anything else.

And even now, writing this, I cannot really convey how I feel when I think about it.  It’s like reading a wonderful book, like Kristina Olsson’s Shell for example.  I try to write a review that shares the power of sublime writing, I post a Sensational Snippet and I rejoice when another reader like Theresa Smith seems to have shared the same experience but I know that even the very best of reviews can’t really describe what is beautiful and true about a book.  You have to read it for yourself.

Unlike the artificial connectivity of social media, great art, as Schjeldahl wrote, puts ‘you on your own, responsive and responsible in your aloneness.’ (p.53)

PS Just in case you’re wondering, Smee is just as captive to social media as the next person:

Every day I spend hours and hours on my phone.  I have Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.  I have three email addresses.  I watch soccer highlights, comedy clips, how-to advice and random music videos on YouTube.  I download podcasts, which I listen to while driving, and I’m addicted to Waze [a GPS navigation software app] and Google Maps.  I do all this, and much more besides, without much thought, just a little lingering anxiety.

We are all doing it, aren’t we?  It has come to feel completely normal.  (p.1)

*Image credit: Wikipedia, public domain

Author: Sebastian Smee
Title: Net Loss, the Inner Life in the Digital Age
Quarterly Essay #72, published by Black Inc 2018
ISBN: 9781760640712
Source: personal subscription

Available from Fishpond: Sebastian Smee on the Inner Life in the Digital Age: Quarterly Essay 72 or better still, subscribe through the QE website.


  1. What a thoughtful piece, I enjoyed reading this Lisa. And thank you for the mention, I feel quite honoured within this context.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think social media is a blight on humanity. It has helped to destroy relationships and the reluctance of so many who are unwilling to connect in old fashioned ways has been devastating for me. I have this conversation on a regular basis with a few stalwarts. But too often I despair. Thank goodness there are some sane folk like your good self. Much appreciated.


    • You know what makes me feel saddest? When I see young mothers glued to their phones and ignoring the small child in the pram.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this piece. I use social media, though very little Facebook and no Twitter, but I find I really need plenty of time alone with my thoughts, or in physical meet ups with friends. I get jittery without time to read, observe and reflect, even if what I’m doing isn’t particularly erudite or serious. I fear we are losing this too.


    • Hi Carol, I hear you!
      I would not like it if this preference for reading and reflecting became an elitist thing by default. I spent my career teaching kids to read so that they could access information and ideas for themselves without having it filtered by others.


  4. I have been thinking about how to respond to this since reading your post last night. I heard an interview with Smee on Life Matters (yesterday I think.) I agreed with a lot of what he said. When I go for a walk, for example, I never use headphones, preferring to use that time to think, to take in my surroundings, to enjoy the peace.

    However, I also value social media, but I’m not on it 24/7 – far from it. However, through it I have reconnected with people I never would have in “the old days.” My travel blog enables me to communicate with my elderly parents daily when we travel rather than sending them the weekly aerogram (some of which they’d get after we got back.) My litblog is a source of great joy and conversation. Other social media platforms enable me to stay in better touch with my children than would otherwise be likely. As with every development – from, say, the wheel on – it’s all about how you use it. Writers like Smee help us think about what we are doing, rather than bowling on mindlessly oblivious to the potential impacts on our lives. But, I’d rather not go back – just like I’m very glad to have a washing machine in my life. Haha.


    • “When I go for a walk, for example, I never use headphones, preferring to use that time to think, to take in my surroundings, to enjoy the peace.” That is a very interesting comment. I read The Making of the British Landscape by Francis Pryor a few years back and even though about the British Landscape it was so influential on me in taking in my surrounds that I never wore headphones again while out walking.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Not quite the same kind of headphones, but I really dislike the ones in tourist attractions (castles, art galleries, museums etc). There you are with your loved one, delighting in the experience of whatever it is, and you can’t share your excitement because he’s listening to someone else on the commentary. It’s a very isolating experience.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, I think he’s addressing an audience into which neither of us quite fit. I mean theoretically Goodreads is social media, but I use it as a catalogue and only rarely chat there. I certainly don’t feel a need to check it obsessively the way some people do with FB and GR – you know, the people for whom the condition FOMO (fear of missing out) has been coined.
    Our litblogs too, theoretically they are social media as well, but that’s in a different space altogether. And neither of us are listening to podcasts.
    But I think that might be our age: we cherry pick the bits we like to use and we don’t feel under any pressure to participate. I think he’s mainly talking about people who are connected all the time, sleeping with the phone under the pillow, panicky if they can’t find it, and upset if others have used it to be mean.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] to Mystery’ by Cameron Semmens, so apt after reading Sebastian Smee’s essay just yesterday: Turn off your phone/ silence/ is the screen/ of your […]


  7. Thought provoking review as usual Lisa. I am not going to get this essay as I have far too much sitting here at home. I find that as time has gone on I have a few writing blogs (including yours:-)), a private footy site I am a member of and GR. Facebook and others are hardly used. I have made one very good friend via social media and of course my life is enriched by writing blogs and GR but to be frank most of the time social media is depressing. Mostly complaining people who are times darn right rude. Also I was on a packed train a few month ago and I was the only one reading a book. It was a bit of a shock. I also have joined the world of none facebook participation and have also notice the facebook “bullying”.


    • Yes. It’s a shame, because it could be so wonderful, but it’s not.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] (ANZLitlovers) reviewed this, as did Amy (The Armchair Critic) who discusses it at some depth including delving into what […]


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