Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss

Sebastian Smee, Net Loss: The inner life in the digital age (Quarterly Essay 72), plus correspondence from Quarterly Essay Nº 73

The cover of the quarterly essay, which includes a small inset image of the  Mona Lisa's smile.

I postponed reading this Quarterly Essay for months for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t think I’d be able to stand the guilt if I read one more well articulated argument about the dangers of social media. And second, I’ve discovered that I prefer to read a Quarterly Essay after its successor has arrived, so that I can read the follow-up correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind.

The guilt factor decreased when I quit Twitter a couple of weeks ago (I haven’t missed it), and then Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (to be read in a couple of months’ time) arrived in my letterbox. So there was no need for further delay. Sebastian Smee’s essay turned out to be a delightful read. If, for reasons of your own, you haven’t read it, it’s not too late for you too to change your mind.

Like many of us, Smee is attached to his fruit-based or other device and a constant user of social media, and feels uneasy about it, not just because of the emergence of what Shoshana Zuboff has called surveillance capitalism, though that looms large in the essay, but also because of how it affects his sense of himself, and his relationships to other people and to the world – what he calls his inner life. ‘Can we protect ourselves,’ he asks

from corporate incursions into our private life by telling ourselves we have some hidden, impregnable inner life to which the algorithms can never gain access? Is this even realistic? It’s very hard to say. One thing we do know is that individual reality is beyond quantification. And cause and effect are always more complex than we like to think. That’ in part because perception itself is almost infinitely fluid.

(page 24)

In a nutshell, that’s the question the essay addresses and the response it comes up with.

The most startling single phrase in the essay is ‘the commodification of our attention’. It’s not Smee’s coinage – a quick web search finds the phrase cropping up in many places. But it encapsulates the way we are being influenced and exploited to contribute to the unimaginably large profits of Facebook, Google and the like.

What Smee does is to embody the kind of attention that has not been whittled down and shaped by social media. He’s a self-described arty type, and here he elucidates the subtleties of passages from Chekhov, explains how a particular painting by Cézanne represents a revolution in ways of seeing, describes and spells out the implications of video works by contemporary artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. He uses language in a way that invites thoughtful consideration, and stands as a living contradiction to his argument that we have entered an age of distraction.

The correspondence up the back of QE73 is, as always, excellent. The closest thing to a disagreement is a beautiful piece of writing by Fiona Wright, a string of cameos illustrating how her life is enriched by social media. There’s some heavy-duty philosophy from Raimond Gaita. Imre Salusinszky indulges some high-level nostalgia for, of all things, John Hughes’s movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Smee responds with the same grace and generosity that permeates the essay itself.

Added 18 April 2019: I’ve just listened to the podcast of David Gillespie talking with Richard Fidler the effects of iPhone and social media on especially teenage brains. It amplifies and makes urgent the gist of Sebastian Smee’s essay. You can get it here.

6 responses to “Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss

  1. LOL You’ve quit Twitter and I’ve quit Facebook. I don’t miss it either. I thought this was a QE articulating a profound truth, and it’s a good example of exactly why I subscribe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I clicked on Like for your comment, Lisa, then realised the irony. Giving up Facebook completely is beyond me: but I’m treading carefully, being niggardly


      • LOL, well I’ll refrain from liking yours!
        I do still have a FB account, basically because it’s such a lot of hassle to remove everything, but I haven’t posted anything there for ages and I don’t read anybody’s posts.
        BTW I discovered something interesting yesterday… I’ve just bought a new laptop to travel with, and thought it was about time to dispose of my first one which is so old it runs on XP. So I spent an hour or so deleting photos and files, there wasn’t much so it wasn’t going to take long, I thought. But when I went to change the screensaver which used my travel photos, I found that it was still using them even though I’d deleted them, and I’d deleted Picasa and the Picasa data too. It took me ages to discover via Search that all my Picasa photos were *still* stored in temporary files, and I had to delete them all manually. And then on top of that, I also had to delete them all from the Recent Files folder too. It just shows you, if that’s how your own computer stores everything for evermore, how much more longevity do online files have, and is it even possible to delete them, assuming you could find them all?


      • Thanks for that cheery information, Lisa! It’s the kind of thing that some day may lead to the 21st century of the Luddite attacks on weaving machines.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting review again, Jonathan – and your follow-up with Lisa – who also – here and on WG’s blog always has something intelligent to add. Currently in Berlin – some rain outside – about 8 or 9 degrees though promising a sweltering 11 degrees C max later this afternoon. I will look for the QE. I tried Twitter for about a year – found my blood pressure going sky high (joking – but you will understand, probably) during Q&A – trying to respond – a program I scarcely ever watch anymore in any event – and about two years or more back de-tweeted myself!


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