Learning From Infinite Jest

Case Ploeg The OG

University of Toronto Scarborough

CSCD03: Social Impact of Information Technology

Brian Harrington

April 11, 2021

Abstract

In recent years many have speculated over whether the internet is making us addicted, lonely, or just plain stupid. Previous research on the subject has either been largely anecdotal journalism or analytical studies. Researchers who discuss the societal effects of the internet rarely consider how the internet is capable of mirroring our own issues rather than causing them itself. In this paper I examine the philosophy of David Foster Wallace’s novel, Infinite Jest, to inform a discussion on the negative effects of internet usage. Through literary analysis, I find that modern society suffers from a systemic loneliness not originating from the internet, but from a lack of meaning in an expedient, unexamined life. I reject the idea that the existence of the internet is a root cause for loneliness or addiction within society and conclude that it is each individual’s choice to use the internet in ways that support or reduce humanity.

Learning From Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest, written in 1996 by David Foster Wallace, says many things about the world. The two main points of the book that will be discussed are: an exploration of ideas concerning a growing dependency on entertainment, as well as a narrative that follows recovering drug addicts and tennis prodigies as they search to find meaning in life. Written before the inception of Facebook and Twitter, the world Wallace describes has an uncanny similarity to the modern information era. In this paper I will discuss Wallace’s thoughts on entertainment and how modern technology enables hedonism. I will then summarize the work of several researchers on the negative effects of technology. Finally, I will consider various solutions given by Wallace and other authors, finding that what’s most integral to humanity is empathy for others, perspective on one’s own life, and autonomy for all.

On Literature

The virtues of Infinite Jest, namely its complexity and ambiguity, are at odds with the scientific methods of analysis expected in a research paper. Many potential readers are put off by its staggering length and disjointed narratives. Further still, interaction with any type of book is becoming increasingly uncommon. Weissman (2014) cites a study from the Pew Research Center saying that “nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year” and that “the number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978”. Even though this paper revolves around a book, a large majority of the research conducted to write it came from online sources. I believe literature can be a useful tool for critiquing the internet, as it can provide perspective for those who use the internet in most aspects of their daily lives.
While our culture is drifting away from literature, I believe there is still value to be gained from the medium. In conversation, Wallace (2009) seems concerned with coming off as speaking in cliché. Literature offers a way to tackle complex problems without reducing them to simplistic terms. Through narrative it’s possible to chain together ideas that may seem initially disconnected; making sense of topics that might be hard to talk about directly. The act of reading is a reminder of the effort required to sit down and concentrate, instead of defaulting to simple, byte-sized, answers that are forever abundant online.
That being said, there is perhaps a limit to how complex something can get before it stops making any sense at all. The size of Infinite Jest makes it something that could be endlessly picked apart from any angle. The density makes it a strenuous process to provide any type of analysis on the source material past the work of dedicated Wallecian scholars. Tom Bissel (2016) titles his foreword for the 20th year anniversary edition of Infinite Jest: Everything About Everything; calling the novel a “perfect analogy for the Internet. Both are too big. Both contain too much. Both welcome you in. Both push you away”. Knowing this, instead of writing a paper on everything, I will rely heavily on Wallace’s non-fiction work to inform his philosophies on entertainment and meaning in life. I will also make use of other literary references to supplement my analysis.

Systemic Loneliness

In his poems, Charles Bukowksi explores the wickedness of human nature in a way that suggests systemic loneliness and nihilism have origins outside of information technology. The Genius of The Crowd (Bukowski 2008), warns that a collective of average people have a great capacity for evil. This collective, not wanting solitude, not understanding solitude, will take away individualism from those who differ from them. Further, the average man and woman will lack an appreciation for the creation and understanding of art. Their lack of ability will lead to hatred, nihilism, and a wish for destruction. Their finest art is to strip away all the uniqueness of the individual, making them as average as possible.

In The Crunch, Bukowski suggests that humans lack a fundamental empathy for their peers. There is a loneliness in this world so great, you can see it reflected in the neon signs built to distract from it. Bukowski rejects the idea that our suffering is due to a lack of religion or a corrupt system. Evils of humanity are to be expected as much as any other part of nature; in some ways they are banal. In this way, a description of human behaviour through technology only suggests technology makes human nature more apparent to us or that technology amplifies such behaviour. Certainly we each have the capacity within us for loneliness, stupidity and other negative conditions.

Entertainment and Hedonism

The Experience Machine

Hedonism as an ethical theory argues the only important measure of value in human life is pleasure and pain (Weijers). Nozick (1974) refutes hedonism using a thought experiment known as The Experience Machine. The experience machine promises to allow a user to feel any sensation they wish without making any actions. The premise is that if simulated experience equates to the totality of well-being, then everyone should choose to enter the experience machine and to essentially never leave it. Nozick believes that if given the choice, we would not use such a machine. He believes that taking part in reality has intrinsic value and that otherwise life becomes meaningless. Based on Nozick’s observations, one could equate using the experience machine as a form of suicide. This idea manifests itself as a metaphor within Infinite Jest through the viewing of entertainment cartridges that provide the viewer so much pleasure they will not look away for any reason.

One refutation to Nozick given by De Brigard (2010) involves an experiment that asks participants to consider a scenario where they “wake up” from the experience machine and are then given the option to either go back in or return to reality. The participants of the experiment were either told that they were a millionaire in real life or that they were a prisoner; representing positive and negative social status respectively. The results were: 87% of the negative case participants chose to go back to the machine, while 50% of the positive case participants chose to go back. De Brigard thinks this response implies we have a status-quo bias for the life we are most used to, and that “contact with reality” is not as important as the experience machine hypothesis makes it seem. The development of television, and more sophisticated entertainment through technology, makes experience machines increasingly relevant.

A Wallacien Guide to Entertainment

Wallace was interested in how television enables a detachment from reality in pursuit of pleasure. In the essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, Wallace (1998) discusses the adverse effects of an over dependence on television, the following is a summary of the points he makes in the essay. He defines television as something extremely appealing to lonely people. Going further to say television is malignantly addictive; purporting to solve loneliness, while actually making it worse. Even to a well adjusted person, the allure of television is that it functions as a mirror of desire, allowing the viewer to vicariously live out their fantasies without engaging with the outside world. Wallace was concerned with how encompassing the medium has become.

Parasocial Relationships

Wallace points out the potential negative effects of too much consumption. Most people would agree that too much of anything will have negative effects, yet most will still watch for 6 hours a day (the younger generation is spending some of that time on social media). Since we “hate, fear, and need television” (Wallace 1998), we watch ironically. An overuse of television makes us begin to treat real life as a place for self-centered relationships, while the characters on TV become the people we care about. Normal people look unnatural on camera. Watching characterizations that appear to be the most alive in a fictional sense, convinces us that those who live are those who are watchable.

Parasocial relationships, a one-way connection formed between viewers and performers, are a long standing topic of research. It’s easy to see how impossible it is to form valid two-way relationships between performers and their audience. There are simply too many people watching. Often the viewer feels like there is a personal connection between them and the performer, but usually they are also being sold something. In a study published by Google, a reported 40% of millennial YouTube subscribers claimed their "favorite creators understand them better than their friends" and “60% would follow advice on what to buy from their favorite creator over their favorite TV or movie personality” (O’Neil-Hart & Blumenstein, 2016).

Machine Operators

One of the main motives of large publishers of entertainment is to make money. Wallace hypothesizes that people are typically more aligned on simple issues, things that incite emotional reaction, and vulgarity. Humans are much more diverse in intellectual ideas and morals. For a business wanting to maximize their audience, the choice of content is obvious, leading to a sense of cheapness from such entertainment. In the context of an experience machine, if pleasure is the only thing of value, then the question of who operates the machine is of no importance, but at the least we should acknowledge that someone is in fact running it.

In a recent Guardian article, Lewis (2017) interviews veteran silicon valley employees for their opinion on the impact of social media. Many employees who were there at the inception of companies like Facebook have become concerned with what they call an attention economy. The focus on advertising and user engagement as a profit strategy is turning off tech workers from their own products. Common concerns include: an inability to focus, constant distraction, and an overall dependency akin to addiction. These websites have been criticized for relying on impulse rather than intention to maintain user engagement.

Justin Rosenstein, an engineer credited as creator of the Facebook “like” button, says often “humans will develop something with best intentions that have unintended, negative consequences”. These engineers in their 30s are the last generation that remember life before the internet and social media, which is important because they have a degree of separation from the technology. It is instructive that those who are close to the technology are now distancing themselves from it. For younger generations, gaining a sense of perspective becomes increasingly hard as social media and the idea of being “plugged-in” becomes a normalcy in everyday life.

Mirror, Mirror

Within J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, the chapter entitled: “Mirror of Erised” describes the exact outcome of prolonged TV usage that Wallace warns about in E Unibus Pluram. Harry, stumbling upon a mirror in a dusty classroom, notices an inscription that translates to: I show not your face but your heart’s desire. He sees his dead parents come back alive alongside him in the mirror. He gets as close as he can to the mirror, jumping into it if he could. He feels both joy and a terrible sadness. The mirror offers him something he has never had as an orphan, but it all disappears once he looks away. Knowing this object exists, Harry loses all ambition for his original objective in the story.

Harry naively believes the mirror is one that shows family to everyone. Dumbledore, the wise headmaster, claims the Mirror shows only our deepest and most desperate desires and tells Harry that “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” (Rowling, pp. 229). The mirror does not offer knowledge or truth or reasons for life. So men waste away in-front of the mirror, staring into the reflection. It’s implied that Dumbledore himself is not truthful with what he sees, suggesting that our deepest desires expose a weakness within ourselves.
In the context of a children’s book, this philosophy could be seen as trite. The key distinction to be made is that the mirror in Harry Potter looks like a work of fiction, while the TV in our living rooms seems natural and our usage unquestioned. Given this story, surely the technology nor the companies are fully to blame for the allure of the experience, entertainment, and dreams. We are capable of imagining worlds where such objects exist and through popular culture we agree that they would be generally bad for us.

Becoming Less Human

Google Is Making Us Stupid

In the article entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr (2008) confesses that he has felt his brain being reprogrammed. He finds his attention span has weakened and struggles with “deep reading”. The internet has saved Carr a lot of time when researching, but he also feels always connected to it. Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist, claims that the media doesn’t just supply information, but shapes channels of thought. Using the internet makes us expect information to be formatted the same way it’s distributed online. On Twitter, short 140-character bursts of thought. On Instagram, a picture-esque reality.
Many who use the web admit to struggling with longer pieces of writing. Studies from the University College London showed that browsing habits of internet users typically involved skimming through content and resembled an avoidance of traditional reading practice. While it’s possible that we read more now than before through all the different mediums available today, reading on the web is different from cracking open a book. While web content has a high focus on efficiency and readability, our skimming habits appear to cost us rich mental connection.

Carr documents how changes in technology have had an impact on humans. Nietzsche’s transition from pen and paper to using a typewriter resulted in a change of writing style. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience, says that even the adult mind is quite malleable. When compared to the adoption of the mechanical clock, we have stopped listening to our senses and now rely on something mechanical to tell us when to eat and sleep. Emergence of technology causes people to use new metaphors. Our brains used to work like clockwork, now they work like computers.
Today we see the internet consuming all other technologies. Having everything all together. Email appears beside the news, school, social media, and seemingly everything else. All these sources of information fighting for one’s attention can lead to distraction and a loss of concentration. Our society adapts to changes in technology alongside us. Carr observes how old media adapts to fast paced web content. Printed magazines have added abstract pages to summarize their articles, mimicking popular web formats. Online we’ve come to expect smaller and more condensed pieces of information, and there is now an expectation for other mediums to fit this model as well. TL;DR.
When considering the implications of instant access to information, Carr is ultimately concerned with our delegation of important tasks to machines. Richard Foreman writes on being concerned in losing something of western culture that idolizes complex and unique internal viewpoints. We risk becoming pancake-people, being spread thin by the vastness of the network, caused by an instantly available information overload. Carr warns that “it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence” when we let computers facilitate our most human interactions with the world. I believe Carr is also implying that choosing to work on hard tasks over automating them leads to a richer life.

Against Technological Monoculture

The term monoculture describes the process of taking something diverse and reducing it to a singularity, typically for the purposes of optimization. As discussed in Kevin Griffith’s Against technological monoculture: Infinite Jest in Legos (2015) the underpinning of our experiences is a never-ending drive towards optimizing technology. Griffith claims that current behaviour “fueled by the Internet, threatens to eliminate our very reasons to be human”, and that Infinite Jest challenges us to find alternative ways of living as a society.

Griffith cites studies that show reading literature promotes empathy towards others, while claiming that empathy is directly at odds with a focus on efficiency. Quoting Lanier (2010): we must work hard “to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others”. We are moving towards one big information system that models reality, but misses the emotion. Griffith believes that the grotesqueness of Infinite Jest is an attempt to break us out of our self-centred shells. The book shows us many people who suffer from different addictions; contrasting their effects against usage of entertainment.

Griffith questions the long term goal of technological advancement, suggesting that as the need for common skills decreases, so does meaning in life for most people. Displacement of jobs and a need for talent can be disenfranchising. Advancement in technology brings with it the potential to make almost all of our daily activities obsolete. Griffith’s conclusion is that it is within our own power to break away from he monoculture, even using that which fuels it. He created his own website, brickjest.com, using legos as an attempt to get away from the totality of computers. The goal was to enlighten readers who were interested, but didn’t have time for the intricacies of Infinite Jest. The success of brickjest.com suggests that it’s up to us to steer things away from the most natural path of efficiency. We can use the internet to make us human, or we can let it strip us of humanity.

Solutions

Consider the Obvious

This Is Water, originally a commencement speech given by Wallace (2009), outlines his philosophy on life and the need to break away from what he calls the “default setting” for adults. Wallace asks us to consider that there are many simple things in life that are easy to forget. For example, we can imagine a fish being ignorant to water despite its absolute necessity. His main claim is the importance of conscious thought, and how it allows us to decide what to worship. In adult life, everyone must worship something, in the sense that everyone’s life must have some structure or routine without falling into complete chaos; whether it be a religion, fame, wealth, athletics, or television. Wallace claims that he is not trying to make anyone think a certain way, only to think in any capacity at all.
It’s important to question the motives that drive our default behaviour and question whether they lead us down the wrong path. The “real world” thrives on negativity, fear, and anger to generate material and power, and encourages you to do the same. If we don’t choose what to think about, we forget that everyone else experiences the same pains and uncertainties of the world, leaving us alone and miserable. Many of the options for worship that we default to, like wealth, power, or intellect, end up leaving us feeling poor, weak, and a fraud. Conscious thought allows us to decide what to forship, potentially escaping this feeling of narcissistic, self-centered, loneliness.

Praying to the Tennis Gods

Wallace describes competitive sport as a pursuit of transcendence. Through practice and constant sacrifice, players aim to become more than they once were. In the context of This Is Water, we can see this as a kind of worship:

Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. (Wallace, 1996, p. 84)

In a way, tennis is an exercise in self-reflection; a constant battle for control over one’s own emotions and physical precision. Strangely, a perfect player is not one who is loved nor are they praised. The player everyone cheers for is the one who is clearly human yet has such fortitude that through their practice they become more than what is imaginable.

Further discussion takes place within Infinite Jest on the growth of an individual and the need for fame over success:

To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame. (Wallace, 1996, p. 389)

Wallace points out that young tennis players are brought to an academy so that they can live a life with some degree of normalcy. Their exercises are grooling, the instructors are unforgiving, and everyone is in pain. All the kids want is to make it to the Show, where they will find success and their suffering will finally be justified. During their time at the academy they are protected from themselves. It does not do for everything to be so easy. This feeling of ease can be caused by innate talent or inheritance of technological advancement, either way we should be weary of it.

Industrial Society And Its Future

Ted Kaczynski, otherwise known as the Unabomber, writes in his Manifesto entitled Industrial Society And Its Future (1995): the Industrial Revolution and development of technology has led to a higher life expectancy among humans at the cost of psychological and physical damage, as well as severe damage to the environment (para. 1). In modern (mainstream) society, only minimal effort is required for basic needs, and we pursue surrogate activities in search of fulfillment that would otherwise be gained from a more primitive lifestyle (para. 40). Examples of such activities include: sciences, artistic creation, and athletics. People tend to gravitate towards these activities because it allows them to express their autonomy, which Kaczynski feels is extremely important (para. 41). His underlying claim is that these surrogate activities are not as satisfying as providing for one’s own biological needs.

Kaczynski is a relentlessly principled man, fighting for ultimate human freedom and autonomy. Kaczynski and Wallace both know that just because someone believes they are free does not mean they are actually free (para. 98). Kaczynski feels that future standards for human achievement will continue to increase, creating an endless competition for self-fulfillment (para. 175). He argues that it’s impossible for everyone to become truly self-actualized in a large, increasingly connected system—empowered by the internet—and as a result the modern human experiences more feelings of inferiority, guilt, depression and anxiety (para. 44).
While I agree that we should value the choices of the individual very highly, I think Kaczynski contradicts himself in his plans for revolution. His complete lack of faith for the human race and refusal to consider long term solutions indicates how self-centred his actions were (para. 212). He was willing to do heinous things to get what he wanted under a guise of altruism. His failure to see the beauty in art and other pursuits of self transcendence is reminiscent of The Genius of The Crowd. Kaczynski relentlessly pursued destruction over understanding.

A Clockwork Orange

Consider the possibility that technology can actually solve the problems of loneliness that have been discussed. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess (1962) explores the possibilities of fixing human issues through the use of technology. The main character, Alex, commits heinous crimes including murder and rape. He represents the rebellious youth that lacks morality and threatens society. Despite his flaws, Alex loves classical music, making him authentically human. Alex loses his authenticity when he is subjected to horror and pain fueled by “entertainment”, as a way of conditioning him to behave according to societal expectations. We naturally urge to remove the parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable, vulnerable, and imperfect. But as Burgess discovered, a clockwork orange is worthless despite its appeal, and “a man who cannot choose ceases to be a man” (p. 169).

Conclusion

In this paper I discussed how technology can have negative effects on human psychology. On entertainment, Wallace shows how technology actualizes hedonism and worsens our loneliness. Carr argues that left unchecked, ease of access to information can make us lazy and stupid. I covered potential solutions to our technological problems by discussing the ideas of Wallace, Kaczynski, and Burgess. All three come to different conclusions, but through my research I’ve found a common thread of respect for individualism and freedom of choice. In conclusion, the internet has the potential for a negative impact on humanity, but it doesn’t necessarily cause issues of loneliness, addiction or stupidity.

References

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