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."
Since when are <i>new</i> and <i>interesting</i> pejorative?
It’s Friday night and my teenage son has invited about a dozen of his buddies -- boys and girls -- over to the house. They’re sprawled out on the couch, mostly separated by gender, glued to their smartphones. Over by the TV, a few kids are playing video games that along with their yelps and whoops are providing the soundtrack for the evening. The group on the couch are close, emotionally and physically; they form a long human chain, shoulders snuggled up against their neighbor’s. Some of the girls are leaning into the other girls, using them as pillows. The boys are physical with each other, but differently: they reach out occasionally to fist bump or high-five. One couple, a boyfriend and girlfriend, are clumped in the middle of the couch, draped on top of one another, while at the same time pressed up against the others.
They’re constantly taking pictures of themselves and of each other. Some are shooting videos, directing their friends to make faces, to say outrageous things to the camera, or to wave hello. And then, it’s right back to the devices, where those images are uploaded to social media and shared among the group, as links are blasted out -- all within a minute. Suddenly, the girls shriek, “I look so ugly!” or “You look so pretty!” and “We need to take this one again.” I hear someone say, “That was so funny! Let’s watch it again.” They count likes and favorites as they pile up and read comments that are instantly appearing from both inside and outside the room. This goes on for hours. In a sense, this is as much about creativity as it is about communication. Each photo, posed and styled, is considered with a public response in mind. They are excited by the idea of themselves as images. But why wouldn’t they be? From before the moment they were born, my kids have been awash in images of themselves, beginning with the fuzzy in utero sonograms that they now have pinned to their bedroom walls. Since then, our cameras -- first clumsy digital cameras and now smartphones -- have been a constant presence in their life, documenting their every move. We never took just one picture of them but took dozens in rapid-fire fashion, off-loaded them to the computer, and never deleted a single one. Now, when I open my iPhoto album to show them their baby pictures, the albums look like Andy Warhol paintings, with the same images in slight variations repeated over and over, as we documented them second by second. Clearly we have created this situation.
There is no road map for this territory. They are making it up as they go along. But there’s no way that this evening could be considered asocial or antisocial. Their imaginations are on full throttle and are wildly engaged in what they’re doing. They are highly connected and interacting with each other, but in ways that are pretty much unrecognizable to me. I’m struggling to figure out what’s so bad about this. I’m reading that screen addiction is taking a terrible toll on our children, but in their world it’s not so much an addiction as a necessity. Many key aspects of our children’s lives are in some way funneled through their devices. From online homework assignments to research prompts, right on down to where and when soccer practice is going to be held, the information comes to them via their devices. (And yes, my kids love their screens and love soccer.)
After reading one of these hysterical “devices are ruining your child” articles, my sister-in-law decided to take action. She imposed a system whereby, after dinner, the children were to “turn in” their devices -- computers, smartphones, and tablets -- to her. They could “check them out” over the course of the evening, but only if they could explain exactly what they needed them for, which had to be for “educational purposes.” But if there was no reason to check them out, the devices stayed with my sister-in-law until they were given back the next day for their allotted after-school screen time, which she also monitors. Upon confiscating my nephew’s cell phone one Friday night, she asked him on Saturday morning, “What plans do you have with your friends today?” “None,” he responded. “You took away my phone.”
On a family vacation, after a full day of outdoor activities that included seeing the Grand Canyon and hiking, my friend and her family settled into the hotel for the evening. Her twelve-year-old daughter is a fan of preteen goth girl crafting videos on YouTube, where she learns how to bedazzle black skull T-shirts and make perfectly ripped punk leggings and home-brewed perfumes. That evening, the girl selected some of her favorite videos to share with her mother. After agreeing to watch a few, her mother grew impatient. “This is nice, but I don’t want to spend the whole night clicking around.” The daughter indignantly responded that she wasn’t just “clicking around.” She was connecting with a community of girls her own age who shared similar interests. Her mother was forced to reconsider her premise that her daughter wasn’t just wasting time on the Internet; instead, she was fully engaged, fostering an aesthetic, feeding her imagination, indulging in her creative proclivities, and hanging out with her friends, all from the comfort of a remote hotel room perched on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
In theorizing or discussing our time spent online, we tend to oversimplify what is an extraordinarily nuanced experience, full of complexity and contradiction. The way we speak about technology belies our monolithic thinking about it. During his recent run for president, a number of Donald Trump’s legal depositions were scrutinized by the New York Times, which intended to show how Trump spoke when he wasn’t in the spotlight. During a series of questions about the ways he used technology, he was asked about television, to which he replied, “I don’t have a lot of time for listening to television.” I was struck by the phrase “listening to television.” You don’t really listen to television; you watch it. You listen exclusively to radio. Born in 1946, it’s safe to assume that Trump spent his formative years listening to radio. My father, roughly the same age as Trump, says similar things. Growing up, he used to berate us kids for watching TV, saying that it took no imagination. Waxing nostalgic, he’d say, “When I was a boy listening to radio, you had to make up everything in your mind. You kids have it all there for you.” For my father -- and I can imagine Trump, too -- although they watched television, I don’t think they really understood it. Certainly, Trump’s statement belies a basic misapprehension of the medium.
Trump’s comment is a textbook example of Marshall McLuhan’s theory which states that the content of any medium is always another medium: “The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.” For Trump, the content of TV is radio. It’s common for people to pick up everything they know about a previous medium and throw it at a newer one. I’m often reminded of Trump’s comment when I hear complaints about how we’re wasting time on the Internet. To them, television is the content of the web. What they seem to be missing is that the web is not monolithic, but instead is multiple, diverse, fractured, contradictory, high, and low, all at the same time in ways that television rarely was.
It’s a Sunday morning and I go downstairs to get the New York Times. In the travel section is a piece entitled “Going Off the Grid on a Swedish Island.” It’s about a woman who takes a digital detox on a remote island as a reminder that she is not, in fact, “merely the sum of my posts and tweets and filter-enhanced iPhone photos.” She checks herself into a “hermit hut” -- an isolated cabin without electricity or running water -- and gives her phone to her husband who locks it with a pass code. As she settles into the hut, bereft of her technology, she suddenly discovers herself connected to nature, listening to the sound of waves folding by the nearby shore. She also rediscovers the pleasure of reading books. She becomes introspective, remarking, “Now, disconnected from the imposed (or imagined) pressures from followers and friends loitering unseen in the ether of the Web, I found myself reaching for a more authentic, balanced existence for myself, online and off.”
She takes long walks. But each natural experience she has is filtered through the lens of technology. While listening to the sounds of nature, she muses, “Without a Spotify playlist to lose myself in ... What else had I been blind to while distracted by electronics, I wondered?” She sees marvelous things: towering wind turbines, whose “graceful blades whoosh audibly overhead,” and congratulates herself when she resists the urge to record and share the scene on social media. She conveniently forgets the fact that these turbines are wholly designed and driven by digital interfaces. She nostalgically finds older, pre-digital technologies -- ironically littering the landscape -- charming. Seeing an upturned rotting car that “looks like a bug,” she can’t resist: “I pulled out my camera and took a photo, one that I knew would never get a single ‘like’ from anyone but me. And that was just ne.” On these sojourns, she mechanizes nature, describing it with tech metaphors: “Along the way, the only tweets I encountered were from birds.” On her final evening on the island, she has a cosmic epiphany whilst musing on the stars in the night sky, one that is served with a dose of self-flagellation for her previous misdeeds: “Those spellbinding heavens are always hiding in plain sight above us, if only we would unplug long enough to notice.”
Even in such lighthearted Sunday morning fare, her words are laced with an all-too-pervasive, unquestioning guilt about technology. Try as she might, the writer is enmeshed with technology to the point that she is unable to experience nature without technological mediation. She may have left her devices at home, but she’s still seeing the world entirely through them. Her brain, indeed, has become differently wired and all the nature in the world on a weekend digital detox won’t change that. What was accomplished by this trip? Not much. Far away from her devices, all she did was think obsessively about them. Returning from her trip, it’s hard to imagine that much changed. I can’t imagine that in the spirit of her adventure she wrote her piece out long-hand in number 2 pencils on legal pads by candlelight, only to sit down at a Remington typewriter bashing out the final draft, and filing it via carrier pigeon. No. Instead, the morning her piece appeared, she retweeted a link to the article: “.@ingridkwilliams goes off the grid on a charming Swedish island.”
What these types of articles tend to ignore is the fact that technology has been entwined with nature for as long as humans have been depicting it. French landscape painters such as Claude Lorrain (1600–1682) often painted what they called ideal landscapes, which rendered nature in pitch-perfect states that never existed. So you get classical ruins nestled in dense, thick jungles that couldn’t possibly grow in the rocky Greek soil. These painters claimed that architecture was a kind of technology, one that either represented the spoiling of nature or its conquest by man. Even Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond was within earshot of the rattle and hum of a busy East Coast railroad line that ran about a kilometer away from his “hermit hut.”
Another article in this morning’s newspaper -- this time in the business section -- sends an identical message. It’s called “Put Down the Phone.” The piece focuses on various types of software and apps that monitor and restrict the time you spend on social media. These technologies include wearable clothing -- with a sweep of an arm you can silence your phone -- and suggests twelve-step-style parlor games you can play with your friends: the winner is the one who looks at their phone the least. There’s also a review of an app that turns your smartphone back into a “dumb phone” circa 1999 that does nothing more than make and receive calls.
But the highlight of the article is a plastic facsimile of a smartphone that is a piece of plastic that does absolutely nothing. It’s touted as “a security blanket for people who want to curb their phone addiction but are afraid to leave home without something to hold on to.” And yet in psychoanalytic theory, a security blanket is known as a transitional object, one that represents “me” and “not me” simultaneously. That definition -- me and not me simultaneously -- seems to be a more realistic assessment of our online lives than the tirade of pleas for a return to some long-lost, unified “authentic” self. Online, I am me and not me at the same time. Surely, the way I portray myself on Facebook isn’t really me; it’s an image of myself as I wish to project it to the world. Sometimes that image is true. Other times it’s a complete lie.
The article concludes with a quote from a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, who disparagingly says, “Smartphones are a potent delivery mechanism for two fundamental human impulses: our quest to find new and interesting distractions, and our desire to feel that we have checked off a task.” But I find that to be positive. That quote sums up the complex balancing act we perform with our devices. We’re productive -- we’re checking off tasks -- and we’re distracted in new and interesting ways. (Since when are new and interesting pejorative?) It’s that frisson of opposites -- bacon-infused chocolate or salted caramel ice cream -- that makes it zing. The professor goes on to bemoan the fact that “with these devices you can get that sense of accomplishment multiple times a minute. The brain gets literally rewired to switch -- to constantly seek out novelty, which makes putting the phone down difficult.” It sounds great to me. Novelty and accomplishment. They work together.