Are You 'Wasting Time on the Internet'? Is That Such a Bad Thing?
"I’m reading these days -- ironically, on the web -- that we don’t read anymore."
Let’s Get Lost
I’m wasting time on the Internet. I click to the New York Times front page to see the latest headlines and today a major nuclear deal with Iran was signed. The banner headline screams history and even though I haven’t really been following the story, I click on it. I’m taken to a page with an embedded video that features Thomas Friedman asking Obama to explain what he thinks the United States gained from the nuclear deal with Iran. I check the time on the video -- three and a half minutes -- and figure that’s not too long to listen to the president speak. He speaks; I watch. He continues to speak; I scroll through my Twitter feed but I still listen. I click back on the Times window and watch again. Somewhere about the three-minute mark, I start to think, Am I really wasting time on the Internet? This is important stuff that I’ve stumbled on to. I’m struggling to see what’s so shameful about this. The video ends and, impressed by what the president was saying, I start to read Freidman’s lengthy article about this beneath the video. I read the first few paragraphs carefully, then scroll down and read some more. It’s starting to get too granular for me. But my interest is piqued. Although I’m not going to read this piece to the end, I’m going to start following this story as it unfurls over the next few days. I stumbled on it and got hooked. Is my engagement deep? Not right now. But judging by the way these things tend to go, as I start to follow the story, my appetite for the topic will most likely become voracious. I can’t see this event -- one that happens several times a day -- as being anything other than good. Because of it, I’m better informed, more engaged, and perhaps even a bit smarter.
After I finish with this article, I click over to Facebook and find myself watching a video of Keith Richards discussing how he gets ideas for his songs. He says that when he’s in restaurants and overhears conversation coming from the next table, he simply writes down what they’re saying. “Give me a napkin and a pen,” he says, smiling. “You feel that one phrase could be a song.” Although the video is only a minute long, it’s packed with wisdom. Really? Could his process be that simple, that pure? After listening to Keith, I feel inspired. After all, I feel like I spend tons of time eavesdropping on Facebook conversations. Might I be able to wring a song or a poem out of those as well?
I’m back on Facebook, and the next thing I know I’m looking at this incredible black-and-white photo from 1917 of a full-size battleship being built in New York’s Union Square. The picture is huge and brimming with details. I click on it and I’m taken to a website. As I scroll down, there’s a short explanatory text about how this came to be, followed by a dozen more giant, rich photos of the ship being built in progress. It’s fascinating. I just wrote a book about New York City and I’m floored that I somehow missed this but grateful to know about it. I bookmark the page and move on.
What is wasting time on the Internet? It’s not so easy to say. It strikes me that it can’t be simply defined. When I was clicking around, was I wasting time because I should’ve been working instead? But I had spent hours working -- in front of the same screen -- and quite frankly I needed a break. I needed to stop thinking about work and do a bit of drifting. But, unlike the common perception of what we do when we waste time on the Internet, I wasn’t watching cat videos -- well, maybe one or two. I was actually interested in the things that I stumbled on: the president, the rock star, and the battleship. I had the choice not to click on these things, but I chose to do so. They seemed to me to be genuinely interesting. There were many more things that I didn’t click on.
Listening to Internet pundits tell it, you’d think we stare for three hours at clickbait -- those web pages with hypersensational headlines that beg you to click on them -- the way we once sat down and watched three hours of cartoons on Saturday morning TV. But the truth is most of us don’t do any one thing on the Internet for three hours. Instead, we do many things during that time, some of it frivolous, some of it heavy. Our time spent in front of the computer is a mixed time, a time that reflects our desires -- as opposed to the glazed-eyed stare we got from sitting in front of the television where we were fed something we ultimately weren’t much interested in. TV gave us few choices. Naturally, we became “couch potatoes” and many of us truly did feel like we wasted our time -- as our parents so often chided us -- “rotting away” in front of the TV.
I’m reading these days -- ironically, on the web -- that we don’t read anymore. People often confess this same thing to me when they hear I’m a poet. The other day, I was opening up a bank account and the associate working at the bank, when he found out what I did, sighed and admitted that he doesn’t read as much as he used to. I asked him whether he had a Facebook account, which he did, and a Twitter, which he also did. I asked him whether he sent and received e-mails. Yes, he said, many every day. I told him that he was, in fact, reading and writing a lot. We’re reading and writing more than we have in a generation, but we are doing it differently -- skimming, parsing, grazing, bookmarking, forwarding, and spamming language -- in ways that aren’t yet recognized as literary, but with a panoply of writers using the raw material of the web as the basis for their works it’s only a matter of time until it is.
I keep reading that in the age of screens we’ve lost our ability to concentrate, that we’ve become distracted, unable to focus. But when I look around me and see people riveted to their devices, I’ve never seen such a great wealth of concentration, focus, and engagement. I find it ironic that those who say we have no concentration are most bothered by how addicted people are to their devices. I find it equally ironic that most of the places I read about how addicted we are to the web is on the web itself, scattered across numerous websites, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook pages.
On those blogs, I read how the Internet has made us antisocial, how we’ve lost the ability to have a conversation. But when I see people with their devices, all I see is people communicating with one another: texting, chatting, IM’ing. And I have to wonder, In what way is this not social? A conversation broken up into short bursts and quick emoticons is still a conversation. Watch someone’s face while they’re in the midst of a rapid- re text message exchange: it’s full of human emotion and expression -- anticipation, laughter, affect. Critics claim that even having a device present acts to inhibit conversation, and that the best antidote to our technological addiction is a return to good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. They say, “Conversation is there for us to reclaim. For the failing connections of our digital world, it is the talking cure.” But this seems to ignore the fact that smartphones are indeed phones: two-way devices for human-to-human conversations, replete with expressive vocal cadence and warmth. Is conversation over the telephone still -- 140 years after the phone was invented -- somehow not considered “intimate” enough, lessened because it is mediated by technology?
But beyond that, life is still full of attentive, engaged face-to-face conversations and close listening, be it at the many conferences, lectures, or readings I attend where large audiences hang on every word the speakers say, or my own therapy sessions -- nothing more than two people in a room -- the tenor and intensity of which hasn’t changed in decades despite several technological revolutions. When a student comes and finds me during office hours, that student -- normally tethered to their device -- can still go deep without one. Even my seventeen-year-old son, awash in social media, still demands that we “talk” in the darkness of his bedroom each night before he goes to sleep, just as we have done his entire life. It’s a ritual that neither of us are willing to forgo in spite of our love of gadgets. Everywhere I look -- on the street, in restaurants and cafés, in classrooms, or waiting in line for a movie -- in spite of dire predictions, people still seem to know how to converse.
Our devices, if anything, tend to amplify our sociability. Sometimes we converse face-to-face, other times over our devices, but often, it’s a combination of the two. I’m in a hotel lobby and I’m watching two fashionable women in their twenties sitting next to each other on a modernist sofa. They are parallel with one another: their shoulders are touching; their legs are extended with their feet resting on a table in front of them. They’re both cradling their devices, each in their own world. From time to time, they hold their phones up and share something on-screen before retreating into their respective zones. While they peck away at their keyboards, shards of conversation pass between them, accompanied by laughter, head nods, and pointing. Then, at once, they put their phones in their purses, straighten up their bodies, angle toward one another, and launch into a fully attentive face-to-face conversation. They’re now very animated, gesticulating with their hands; you can feel the words being absorbed into their bodies, which are vehicles for augmenting what they’re saying. It’s fascinating: just a moment ago it was parallel play; now it’s fully interactive. They continue this way for several more minutes until, as if again on cue, they both reach into their purses, take out their phones, and resume their previous postures, shoulders once again touching and legs outstretched. They’re no longer conversing with each other, but are now conversing with someone unseen. Our devices might be changing us, but to say that they’re dehumanizing us is simply wrong.
The Internet has been accused of making us shallow. We’re skimming, not reading. We lack the ability to engage deeply with a subject anymore. That’s both true and not true: we skim and browse certain types of content, and read others carefully. Oftentimes, we’ll save a long form journalism article and read it later offline, perhaps on the train home from work. Accusations like those tend to assume we’re all using our devices the same way. But looking over the shoulders of people absorbed in their devices on the subway, I see many people reading newspapers and books on their phones and many others playing Candy Crush Saga. Sometimes someone will be glancing at a newspaper one moment and playing a game the next. There’s a slew of blogs I’ve seen recently which exhaustively document photos of people reading paper books on the subway. One photographer nostalgically claims that he wanted to capture a fading moment when “books are vanishing and are being replaced by characterless iPads and Kindles.” But that’s too simple, literally judging a book by its cover. Who’s to say what they’re reading? Often we assume that just because someone is reading a book on a device that it’s trashy. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t. Last night I walked into the living room and my wife was glued to her iPad, reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Hours later, when I headed to bed she hadn’t moved an inch, still transfixed by this 171-year-old narrative on her twenty-first-century device. When I said good night, she didn’t even look up.
And while these critics tell us time and again that our brains are being rewired, I’m not so sure that’s all bad. Every new media requires new ways of thinking. How strange it would be if in the midst of this digital revolution we were still expected to use our brains in the same way we read books or watched TV? The resistance to the Internet shouldn’t surprise us: cultural reactionaries defending the status quo have been around as long as media has. Marshall McLuhan tells us that television was written off by people invested in literature as merely “mass entertainment” just as the printed book was met with the same skepticism in the sixteenth century by scholastic philosophers. McLuhan says that “the vested interests of acquired knowledge and conventional wisdom have always been by-passed and engulfed by new media ... The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who have acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be.”
I’m told that our children are most at risk, that the excessive use of computers has led our kids to view the real world as fake. But I’m not so sure that even I can distinguish “real” from “fake” in my own life. How is my life on Facebook any less “real” than what happens in my day-to-day life? In fact, much of what does happen in my day-to-day life comes through Facebook -- work opportunities, invitations to dinner parties, and even the topics I discuss at those dinner parties often comes from stuff I’ve found out about on Facebook. It’s also likely that I met more than a few of my dinner companions via social media.
I’m reading that screen time makes kids antisocial and withdrawn, but when I see my kids in front of screens, they remind me of those women on the couch, fading in and out, as they deftly negotiate the space of the room with the space of the web. And when they’re, say, gaming, they tend to get along beautifully, deeply engaged with what is happening on the screen while being highly sensitive to each other; not a move of their body or expression of emotion gets overlooked. Gaming ripples through their entire bodies: they kick their feet, jump for joy, and scream in anger. It’s hard for me to see in what way this could be considered disconnected. It’s when they leave the screens that trouble starts: they start fighting over food or who gets to sit where in the car. And, honestly, after a while they get bored of screens. There’s nothing like a media-soaked Sunday morning to make them beg me to take them out to the park to throw a football or to go on a bike ride.
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