“First off, I’m not against the Internet,” Dan Hoyle told me over lunch. It’s a sentiment that snakes through Each and Every Thing, the actor and writer’s latest one-man show, which might otherwise be mistaken for a humorous polemic against our age of hyperconnection.
We were eating at Tom’s Restaurant, the uptown Manhattan diner whose façade appears often in Seinfeld—as good a place as any to talk about superficiality, I thought. But I didn’t want our conversation to just skim the surface of Hoyle’s highly developed and well-researched ideas about space and awareness. I wanted entrée to “Open Time,” a concept that figures prominently in the play and one that Hoyle takes pains to live by.
“Open Time is when you’re so locked into the moment that you’re using the heights of your perception to experience what’s happening,” Hoyle said. “I often find it when I’m talking with strangers. That’s a transformative experience. But a lot of people struggle to have Open Time, even with people they know.” The phrase itself comes from Hoyle’s good friend Pratim, a character whom he plays on stage with a melodious Indian voice and an invisible cigarette that seems to gesture more than the hand that holds it aloft. Though Hoyle skillfully mimics a number of people he’s met in the last decade, it’s Pratim who provides the play’s spiritual center, advocating for silence, drift, emptiness, and fine-tuned intuition.
It’s these things that may be threatened by Internet culture, Hoyle’s work argues: “The Internet is now available, with us, 24/7. It’s much different to be on the Internet in your house than to be scrolling through Instagram in a public space—because then public space becomes private space… Being more connected with your friends, being more connected with the world—it’s two different things.”
I would come to find that “different” was one of Hoyle’s most often deployed words—he has a knack for knocking down a facile metaphor, as when I tried to argue that his play functioned a bit like the Internet itself, a web of associative links.
But however kinetically comic the show, however it pinballs from Hoyle’s post-collegiate life chatting up corner boys in Chicago to the coffee houses of India to a party in Nebraska to a three-day stint in something called “Digital Detox,” with a sprinkling of musical interludes (a swagged-out rap song called “Phone Zombie” is a highlight), Hoyle never gives any facet of his kaleidoscope anything less than time to settle. This reinforced the points he would later make about our consumption of continuous content—especially the cascade of “news.”
“I’ve subscribed to a daily newspaper since I was 21, sometimes two or three,” Hoyle said—none too surprising from a man whose play includes a slow jam about getting down with the meaty Sunday edition. “I don’t read as much of the news if I go on nytimes.com; I read maybe two articles” before diving into “rabbit holes of randomness,” e.g. BuzzFeed, he explained. “I don’t like consuming news constantly. I like having an hour when I consume the news—and then move on to another activity. As a ritual, a daily lesson in empathy.”
Papers may have biases, he admits, “but there’s an intentionality. We have less and less common experience. [There’s value in] all receiving something that is the same.”
He then took aim at the people who might accuse him of nostalgia or Luddism:
There’s this triumphalist narrative, if you follow the ‘future of the news’ debate on Twitter, which I have—all these guys like Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis constantly, basically, cheering on the demise of these newspapers. Being like, ‘Oh yes, the great new age is going to come when everyone fucking realizes that nobody wants to read a newspaper anymore, and it’s all gonna be online!’ If people want to read the newspaper, let them read a friggin’ newspaper! If it dies out, it dies out.
Even discipline as admirable as Hoyle’s has chinks in it. “I find there’s something addictive about screens; I find myself pulled in and unconscious,” he said. “I find myself always battling with my concentration. [With] my work, I have to have long, sustained periods of concentration. If you can’t have an empty mind, there’s no space for good thoughts,” he concluded, paraphrasing Pratim. These feelings led him to books like Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which confirmed his worrying suspicion that the Internet is rewiring our consciousness—and we’ve yet to fully recognize, let alone articulate, the effect.
This triggers Hoyle’s journey in the show: a road trip, a visit to Pratim’s analog homeland, and that detox retreat, where digital burnouts unplug completely. “I’m not lecturing people,” Hoyle said of that hilarious scene, which collects observations from people dazed by their return to a reality they’d all but forgotten. What’s fascinating here is Hoyle’s notion that the same impulse that drives us into social media is what eventually drives us away. “People talk about the fear of missing out,” he said. “There are also people who are starting to realize there’s things you can miss out on in the actual world… I think that that pendulum is starting to shift.”
Part of the tension, Hoyle said, lies in the need for assurances. “There’s such a pining for authenticity right now—authenticity is the new kind of currency,” he said. “Sherry Turkle talks a lot about this in her book; she’s been researching this for 30 years. People having an experience don’t feel they’ve had it until they’ve communicated it, and it is then validated. Which is so nuts!… You’re out and you see this amazing thing, your first impulse used to be, ‘I’m gonna take a photo of that to capture it for myself.’ Now you want to take a photo to share it with everyone else, then everyone else can say, ‘Oh you had that experience.’ Then you can say, ‘I had that experience.’” He mocked a series of T-Mobile ads touting “unlimited data”: “Take a photo of the concert, then share it on Facebook, and all your friends are looking at their screens and enjoying sharing this shit while you’re at a concert? That’s not cool!”
That he’s performing his own experience for an audience’s approval is something that’s not lost on Hoyle. “My show’s not a conversation—I hope my show sparks conversation,” he said. “There’s a lot of really smart people thinking about this stuff. There are ideological battles underneath this stuff… I hope my show is like a check-in—‘Oh, I value this stuff too.’” Most people “are not unaware of the times we’re living in, but they’re looking for a balance. I hope my show gives people an avenue to stroll down when they’re feeling that.” Noting that we may well be laughing about such issues in 20 or 30 years, he cut to the heart of his ambition:
I think we do have some agency to decide how we want this to go. We’re the generation that’s going to be making decisions and leading the world. Right now the norms are being set. [There’s a] desire to set norms that are the better angels of our nature, and that doesn’t happen unless we have a conversation about it. How can we use this amazing technology in a way that preserves our humanity, public space, democracy?
Hoyle agreed that he’s invested in honesty. On that score, he’s tickled by the “exclamation-pontification of online discourse”: “When I was growing up, we’d get these letters from an aunt, and they’d be like, ‘I had a really great time at the beach!’ And we’d laugh, we’d be like, ‘Oh my god, she’s so earnest.’ We’re all like that now, because there’s such an insecurity in appearing negative or responding negatively to friends… it’s not the end of the world, it’s just funny, and it’s worth saying, ‘Yes, we know this is happening.’”
The need to make ourselves seem more successful, happy, interesting, and above all talkative on the Web can be combated with Open Time. “Just look around and perceive what is happening and practice using [your] senses,” Hoyle said. “We’re so bombarded, we want to shut down, but with Open Time, you can be curious again.”
The Indian coffee shops were wonderful because “you didn’t have to talk, you didn’t have to fill in the silences,” he said. Instead two people can simply think about the same thing, together. Shutting up and paying attention is what gives us access to “other peoples’ realities,” and “anytime we’re curious about people, that in itself is a stretching-out of ourselves. That’s a good thing.”
When I parted ways with Hoyle, I was eager, as I had been after seeing his show at New York’s Public Theater, to locate a new appreciation for, well, each and every thing I encountered. It wasn’t long, of course, before I felt the tug of unanswered emails and Twitter notifications. The next day, Hoyle emailed to say that after our lunch, he showed up early to a meeting at Columbia University, his next venue. “But instead of scrambling to get in contact with my date as I did with you,” he wrote, “burrowing into my phone, finding your number, texting you to meet earlier so as to not waste time, I lay on my back on the Columbia campus and watched the clouds and my thoughts roll by for 20 minutes. It was great.”
It may not be easy to reconnect with oneself, but it’s even harder to overstate the rewards.
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