Inside Out / Outside In

Rest and retreat in public spaces

Inside Out / Outside In

I had a curious experience last week, one that was illumined by a newsletter I received the next day. In my quest to preserve the last dive diner I frequent, I was picking up breakfast but arrived before the order was ready. There I stood, the lone patron where the Saturday morning breakfast crowd used to be. The waitress, now simply a cashier, hands me coffee in a to-go cup and invites me to sit.

So I sat, and I watched people queue past the storefront as they waited to enter the small but popular grocery store next-door. I sat and I sipped unremarkable coffee. It felt comfortable, like home. Like I said, a curious experience. But an issue of Drew Austin’s newsletter helped make sense of it. In issue #143, he writes:

The internet inverts the roles of indoor and outdoor space, as I’ve argued before, and this has become especially palpable in pandemic conditions. Activities traditionally done in public are increasingly digital and done at home; the outdoors are where we go to take a break from it all.

My brief visit to the diner—a quick transaction under lockdown, if not my inefficient tendency to arrive early—was literally a respite. It was a break from the the everything space my small home has become, inverting the role of the home as a private refuge from public life. Which isn’t to say that the home shouldn’t function as a space where we invite outsiders in; normally, it should. But the pandemic has accelerated the inward turn occasioned by online consumption. Let’s call it Amazon-brain. What happens when we turn inward in this way and erase boundaries, flattening the experience of navigating our built environments, our public space, into screens? What happens when the pubic realm of commerce and politics thoroughly colonizes private domestic space?

Hannah LaGrand, writing in Comment, suggests that a life lived in public in this way loses something essential, a distinct richness nurtured by privacy. Turning to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, LaGrand makes a case for the refuge of privacy:

As Arendt writes, “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense.” The public world of appearances must be rooted in something that does not appear.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I’d say that means it’s hard to be fully human while very-online. At home during a pandemic, an internet writer and remote worker, I live in public in front of screens more and more. My curious experience at the empty diner was a break from the beachhead the public realm has won in my home. Because while still physically private, our homes are “simultaneously where we live the most public version of our lives,” Austin writes, “online—a domain thoroughly suffused by the most advanced forms of capitalism, and now where we work as well as consume.” From the same seat, in front of the same screen, I post tweets both forgettable and regrettable; I visit my grandparents via FaceTime; I schedule a rare trip to a “new” place, a physiotherapist for my aching back; in front of the same screen, I try to worship the God who reminds me limits are good.

The outside world now offers a private refuge, as much for prayer as for rest, if only the iPhone stays home. The public performance and convenient consumption of the internet have a hard time following me on walks, because Twitter and Amazon aren’t out there anymore, they’re in here with me. That’s why Austin concludes

the outside world has become a haven from those same conditions, and the types of businesses we now find there, struggling to survive, feel closer to “the darkness of sheltered existence” than the glow of the laptop screen at home.

And so I must choose to turn away from the screen. I push back the electronic public, choosing not to inflict myself upon it, but also out of self-preservation. I type with the wi-fi off, at least for a time, and nurse a curious longing to sit in an empty diner.

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