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Staff photo by Tim Barber Brooke Bennett and Trevor Jackson look at their phones as they play the PokemonGo app at Renaissance Park on Tuesday evening. "We're on a Pokemon date," Jackson said. "Instead of dinner and a movie, it's dinner and Pokemon for us."
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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 3/9/16. Shelly Bradbury poses for a photo illustration dealing with a proposed law that could ban the use of cell phones while driving in Tennessee unless being used with a hands free device.
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Staff Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Chattanooga Times Free Press - June 22, 2012. David Cook

Want a more peaceful year? More calm and less chaos in 2017 than 2016?

Want that growing sense of foreboding to diminish? This low-level anxiety to go away?

I'm not sure it's possible.

Because the deeper cause of our distress is not politics or the White House or terrorism.

It's the internet.

Sure, plenty of really rough things happened in 2016, but the internet took all that bad news and amplified it. The farther we go into our digital and online lives, the more fragmented, distracted and anxious we become. This widespread stress we feel is part and parcel of internet America, which swaps contemplation for reaction and a slow unfolding of things for instant gratification. The medium is the message, Marshall McLuhan once said, and the message of the internet is anything but calm.

Yes, the technology dazzles. We have 500 channels, 3-D printing and laptops Einstein wouldn't believe.

But do we have peace of mind?

"The boons are real. But they come at a price," writes Nicholas G. Carr, author of "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains."

I often carry my phone the same way I used to carry a pack of cigarettes. I'll need a fix, so instead of lighting up, I check texts. Or email. Or fantasy football scores. Someone once compared the internet to the casino: logging on feels like the tiny rush — email, Instagram, Facebook, our news feed — of pulling the lever on the penny slots.

We scroll, text and surf while walking, eating, working, driving, as if forever searching for something we never find. My mind feels so much messier when I'm online. These days, it seems harder to sit alone with my thoughts. Has the internet killed daydreaming?

We heralded it all as the Information Age, but what if there's such a thing as too much information? Too many headlines? Like a river overflowing its banks, our minds and hearts are oversaturated with information, most of it irrelevant.

"It is too much," the poet Czeslaw Milosz once wrote. "There is too much world."

Our news feed gives us Debbie Reynold's broken heart followed by Syrian atrocities followed by the biggest celebrity butts of 2016. It de-prioritizes the news by prioritizing the non-news. When everything is important, nothing is.

The internet presents us with too much disaster, which makes us afraid.

The internet gives us too much distraction, which puts our spiritual lives to sleep.

The internet gives us too much anonymity, which incites our lesser selves.

Don't you feel this, too?

"There is always something new I can look at. Something stimulating. New news. New newness," writes British comedian-critic Dave Gorman in "Too Much Information."

"I must see everything. Ten-minute-old news? Not for me. I don't want stale news. I want fresh news. And fresh cat videos too, for that matter."

Show of hands: how many feel refreshed after an afternoon online?

Show of hands: how many feel happier after two hours of staring at your phone?

"Only 2 percent of the internet is worth sitting through a 15-second ad," the Onion reported satirically, but not really.

Yes, I know so many of you work careers where the internet is doing amazing things. It's revolutionizing science and medicine and nanotechnology and green energy. It's a tool for justice: police body cameras, the whole-world-is-watching activism and #herstory. It's also, at times, profoundly, delightfully amazing.

But on the great ledger sheet, I'm not sure it adds up to a positive balance. No, I'm not ditching my phone or laptop, but I still remember pre-internet America. Warmly. And something's been lost between then and now.

I'm sure this sounds heretical here in Gig City. And I don't mean to sound grouchy, especially on the first day of 2017, when we're supposed to look ahead, and not behind us.

And I know there's no going back.

But what exactly are we going forward to?

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. And yes, ironically, you may follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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