Howard and I took this topic on in Friday’s Perpetual Post:
I’ve spent countless carefree, enjoyable hours surfing the internet, but if there were a way to add all of that time up and show me exactly how much of my sweet life I’ve wasted reading gossip blogs and msn.com relationship advice, I would probably weep and throw myself off a cliff. I know that at this point I’ve spent months of my life playing around on the internet. Maybe even years. YEARS spent staring at a glowing screen and scrolling through photos of celebrities clambering out of limos. What have I really gained from all of that restless, pointless clicking and endless consumption of cheap news and useless information? Where did the time go? Can I have it back? If I could have it back, wouldn’t I just waste it in a similarly pointless, trivial manner? Or would I write the great American novel?
I guess the definition of a waste of time is different for everyone. However unlikely, there may be some who bemoan the years they frittered away reading Joyce, seeking spiritual enlightenment and spending time with their children. Still, my definition of a waste of time is unfortunately going to have to include the hours I’ve spent watching videos of cats playing with boxes, reading reviews of terrible 80s movies, and searching for pictures of Basking sharks (because have you seen those things?!). And I have the power of Google to thank for most of those experiences.
An article on The Atlantic.com called ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid’ suggested that the ease with which the internet allows us to move quickly from one thing to another is rewiring us to be less able to focus on one thing for long periods of time. I didn’t finish the article but it looked interesting. Anyway I’ll finish writing this in a minute. First I’m going to go check my bank balance online. While I’m doing that, I will remember that I wanted to buy this recipe book on Amazon, and once I’m on their website I will be sidetracked by a link to a fabulous quiche recipe. Then I’ll Google ‘quiche recipe’ to see if I can find a better one, which will remind me that I’ve always wondered how long it takes for eggs to go bad, which will lead me to a video of a dancing chicken, which will lead me to a video of a dancing robot, which will remind me of this website I used to visit that had comics about robots, and when I get to that website I will remember that I meant to email an old friend who likes robots. But before I get to that, I want to read a movie review of Tron, and I’m hoping that review will totally slam it, so I go to The Onion AV club, which reminds me that I haven’t read Dan Savage in awhile, so I’ll catch up on the last few months of his sex advice columns, at which point I look at the clock and realize I’ve spent three hours staring at the computer with very little to show for it. And I could have been playing with the dog, or making a quiche, or calling my grandmother just to say hi.
I’m not going to claim that the internet has never taught me anything. It is thanks to Google that I’ve learned how to grow windowbox herbs and discovered that Timothy Olyphant from “Die Hard 4” also played the drug dealer in “Go”. The internet is incredible in its real-time validation of the most insignificant of my urges and thoughts. The faintest blip of an idea can lead me to far-reaching websites and galaxies of discovery. The problem is, with all of this information at my fingertips, my mind seems to be turning into a colander, and surfing the internet is like dipping it into the ocean. When I re-emerge from my internet travels, all the glorious trivia and minutia I’ve gathered over the hours immediately drains out and I forget all of the wonderful knowledge I’ve spent hours skimming over. Occasionally a small silvery fish will be left flopping in the colander—a rare fact that I’ve actually managed to retain—and it’s usually either the day’s weather forecast or something about Britney Spears.
Recently I’ve been trying to finish doing one thing at a time online before I move on to the next. This seems simple, but somehow it’s become incredibly difficult, perhaps because my mind is trained at this point to expect the instant gratification of every random whim that occurs to me while I’m in the middle of something that’s maybe not holding my attention perfectly. Perhaps I’m apartment hunting online or researching credit scores. Suddenly it will occur to me that I want to see a picture of that dress whats-her-face wore to the Oscars that one year—and BAM! That is enough of an incentive for me to drop what I’m doing and kneel at the shrine of Google. And when I find that actress’s dress, it might lead me to one of my favorite fashion blogs, and before I know it, an hour’s gone by and all of the good apartments are taken. And my credit score is still in the toilet.
It’s not been easy making this change, and I haven’t done nearly as well as I would have liked (while writing this article I Googled several different unrelated subjects, including the goblin sharks and the history of the Sapphire) but I’m getting there. And someday, when I’m old and I’m the only one at the card table who can play more than one round of gin rummy without wandering off to watch breakdancing videos on YouTube or surf for pancake recipes, maybe my brain will thank me.