When I first moved to NYC fresh out of college my stepfather told me something I never forgot. “Be careful,” he said. “God feels small there.”
He was right. In the intoxicating flow and frustrating grind of life in NYC, many aspects of the wider world shrank. Not just God: holidays, family traditions, and past identities tend to stay at the door when you come to New York City.
That move became 18 years in New York that ended in 2018 with the allure of a new chapter somewhere else, eventually finding my way to Vancouver, British Columbia.
In the pandemic life slowed down and those bigger considerations like “God” loomed larger once again. Not just God but the whole metaphysical realm of ideas, identity, purpose, and, underneath much of it, the great metaphysical scaffolding of modern life: the internet.
Over this time the internet — already central to my existence the previous 25 years — grew in influence and importance to problematic degrees in my life. It increasingly shaped how I thought about myself, who I was, and my perceptions of inner and outer worth. Its feedback loops overwhelmed the present moment and people I was closest to more than I’d like to admit.
And then, three weeks ago, a lot of this changed.
The change wasn’t sparked by a New Year’s resolution or anything like that. It happened because on Christmas my family and I moved back to NYC.
Since coming back I’ve walked through the city feeling both like I’m somewhere new and I’m back where I've been the most in my life. Seeing friends again, being around people, working physically alongside one of my Metalabel cofounders — all of it has me bursting with joy for life in a way I haven’t in a long time.
But maybe the biggest realization since returning to New York?
The internet feels small here.
An ị for an I
Last year I was corresponding with my pen pal Aaron Lewis about how we’re all composed of different distinct selves, each representing different aspects of who we are or want to be (an idea I call “post-individualism”). Reflecting on this, Aaron shared an idea from the Dark Meaning Research Institute:
The letter 'I' is a line; a line is the shortest distance between two points; but an individual is a line between two points only if they interact with one single thing for their entire life, which is obviously impossible. Every interaction, whether it be with a person or a text, creates a new 'I', so an 'individual,' when seen from above, actually looks like a dot in the centre of a bicycle wheel from which countless lines (or 'I's) emanate like spokes. The new symbol for the individual is therefore a lowercase ‘I’ with a dot at both ends (ị), which acknowledges the existence of the other as intrinsic to the existence of the self… Most people in the world today think the individual (from the Latin individuus, meaning ‘indivisible’) cannot be divided, but that is a similarly erroneous assumption. We can now see that an ‘individual,’ at their most basic level, always consists of two points rather than one, and they are therefore more representative of pairing/duality than indivisibility.
I spent the next few days meditating on this view of “I,” sketching how I thought the process might work:
I imagined the top line of the “I” represents the macro context we exist within – the wider world that surrounds us. I imagined the bottom line of the “I” represents the micro context that exists within us – our personalities, experiences, and how they cause us to respond the way we do. As our micro context reacts to our macro context and vice versa, the energy flowing between them creates the distinct shapes that form who we are as individuals.
When Aaron shared this idea I was still living in Vancouver, and this way of seeing myself resonated deeply. In Vancouver my world was incredibly small and my context even smaller. There my defining trait was I didn’t snowboard or ski. When I met people that’s what was most relevant about me — where my “I” stopped. This led me to seek more and more of my macro context online, a world where my merits were more dynamic than my immediate surroundings.
Over time, my personality became increasingly wrapped in this interplay between the internet (macro) and how I felt inside (micro). For anyone who’s fallen into this pattern, you know what happened next: my sense of self worth became more and more interlinked with what I experienced online, causing me to make more choices optimizing for internet values, weakening my own sense of self beyond what was legible to the network.
In a 1984 book by Sherry Turkle called The Second Self, the M.I.T. professor interviews some of the first ordinary people to use computers in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s on a daily basis, from office professionals to school children. One subject tells her in an interview: “I like to think of my work as ‘out there’ and I am ‘in here.’ The thing with the computer is that you start to lose track of the ins and the outs.”
As the internet has become our defining context this gets even more complicated, because the internet isn’t a steady state, it’s a constantly changing one. We’re repeatedly switching modes and personas, with our central ị (the figure ‘in here’) directing our energy and attention. These worlds give us the freedom to explore and define our identities however we’d like, but not without risking inner confusion about what the “real world” is or in which world we primarily exist.
Shrinking the internet
I was talking about this trap with my friend Ian Hogarth last fall. How do I contexualize the internet into my life, I asked him, rather than it being nearly everything?
His answer was simple but difficult: the only choice was for your physical life to be so engrossing and enthralling that you don’t think about the internet. Unless our actual lives are stimulating and we’re directly engaged with the physical world, resisting the internet is useless. We’ve got no shot.
For Ian, that means things like rock climbing and surfing. For others it’s dancing, yoga, meditation, and other rituals that create spaces where internet chatter can not intrude. I have those too – long runs, making music, being with my family – but at times they feel more like airport layovers between internet sessions than the center of life itself.
I’ve resisted and wrestled with this experience, and I’ve written about that struggle repeatedly (The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet, Rethinking labels, Bentoism). This commitment to struggle has been helpful. It’s made me stronger creatively, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, and I return to New York a different person than when I left. Compared to Vancouver, here I have many more opportunities to discover and reveal versions of myself. Context is queen.
The internet is still a central character in my life. My work life still exists online. My present and future are deeply intertwined with experiences and connections made through the internet. The struggle will continue. But I can already feel that I don’t exist there as much as I once did. My macro context changed and my micro context did too, establishing new ins, outs, and patterns of self.
Not everyone wants to or can move to NYC, but plenty of us would love the internet to be smaller in our lives or for a more diversified inner life. This experience says to me bigger changes are possible than we think. It can be as simple as creating two points and establishing new paths between them.
The Ideaspace is a monthly-ish email. Sometimes it’s pretty good.
I wrote an essay with Metalabel exploring what a new era of creativity online might look like: “What’s after the creator economy?”
You can hear me discuss metalabels with my good friend Ian Rogers on the Ledger podcast, and how Metalabel works as a heterarchy on the Seed Club podcast.
I’ve been obsessed with the new live album from The Smile, a band led by Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. The full Live from Montreux Jazz Festival album is a mesmerizing listen, as is this video playlist of the whole show. My favorite track, “The Smoke,” reminds me of End Hits-era Fugazi. Minimalist perfection. Highly recommended.
My other listening love this month: Pharaoh Sanders’ Live in Paris (1975), an alternately raucous and delicate performance that’s been on repeat.
For more on “post-individualism,” listen to this Interdepedence podcast episode. Look for an in-depth essay exploring post-individualism in an upcoming Ideaspace.
Thanks for sharing this. I made a similar move in 2021, from NYC to Bellingham, WA (Vancouver's American neighbor). "There my defining trait was I didn’t snowboard or ski." <-- This is too true! Add mountain biking to that list for the ultimate social death knell.
I was in a zoom conversation with ~50 people where the topic was "working online, living offline." A link to your article came up on the screen, with that same line "they feel more like airport layovers..." and heads were nodding -- literally around the world. I don't think the number of likes or comments can truly reflect the resonance this topic, and your piece, is having. I wanted to let you know that. And big credit to startupy for hosting that call & sharing the article.
I've been thinking a lot about the "I", the macro-micro framing, and how to be intentional about navigating these contexts. I'm in a similar struggle to what you're describing, though I don't plan to move back to NYC. Regardless, this framing makes sense and is a helpful way to think about it.
OMG you're back?! ♡