Tag Archives: internet

Leaving the Internet Will Not Make You a Better Person. Neither Will Anything Else.

It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.

And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.

Paul Miller, writer and lifelong techie, went a year without using the internet. No e-mail, no Facebook, no Google Maps, no Expedia, nothing.

And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.

[…] As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.

It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.

It’s funny the kneejerk admiration we have for people who voluntarily opt out of technology we’ve had for less than two decades. Miller got regular fan mail from admirers, an outpouring of ‘good for you’ sentiments in his PO box every week. When I first read his ‘Goodbye Internet’ post a year ago, I remember my  reaction being ‘good for this dude!’

We have this weird conventional wisdom that the internet (by which we usually mean its more superficial representatives: Facebook, Buzzfeed, LOLCats) is a burden, a cacophony, the sirens enticing Ulysses toward destruction with a beautiful song.

Whenever anyone complains about the internet–the constant distractions, the oppressive connectivity, the instant gratification–I wonder to what degree they’re engaging in a kind of poorly aimed nostalgia. I remember the pre-internet era like this too,  a time when friendships were stronger, books were shorter, concentration was easier.

Some of this is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that before the internet I was fifteen years old. The processing power of my  desktop computer is not the only thing that has changed since then. Going to college, getting a job, moving to other countries, these things affect friendships, reading habits, ability to concentrate just as much as the internet does.

I  wonder how many of the people congratulating Miller on leaving the internet are old enough to have had lives without it.

By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.

A year in, I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.

It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge.

So heartbreaking!

It’s like the Malthusian trap works at the level of the individual. Something changes in your life and you find new habits, new energy. You think you’re riding an incline, productivity and happiness increasing upward toward some new you. But then, your personality and your habits and your vices adjust. The incline plateaus, and before you know it, you’re staring at same monsters you thought you had turned away from.

This week is the two-year anniversary of my arrival in Berlin. This is the fourth time I’ve moved to a new country, and every time, the same thing happens.  The first few weeks I explore, I meet new people, I take in the new stuff and jettison the old. The first three months go by like a year, all the novelty and adjustment stretching each day into an accomplishment. Then it all speeds up.  Six months go by, a year, and I look around and I find myself in the same life I had in the last country.

This isn’t actually so bad. I rather like my life, and I’ve been able to build social groups (thanks Facebook!), stay in touch with  old friends (thanks Skype!) and entertain myself (thanks Grindr!) in places I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t constantly feel like a new me was just one more country away.

But still, Miller’s experience and mine make me wonder if we think about self-improvement the wrong way. Maybe it’s not about changing where we live or what we do or how much we internet. Maybe it’s about changing how we respond to what’s already around us.

Or maybe we’re proof that it doesn’t actually matter. Even the most profound changes in your external circumstances will only result in short-term changes before you adjust and invite the old you to return. Maybe that fifteen year old kid, the one with the lifelong friends, the stack of books books completed and absorbed, he’s still here, no matter how emphatically adulthood tries to ostracize him.

Strangely, I find all this somewhat comforting. If that kid isn’t going to make an exit anytime soon, maybe I still have time for a few more.

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If the internet is going to destroy our privacy, can it take our prudishness too?

So everyone is all Panic Room about the Petraeus scandal and how it means that we’ll never be able to write e-mails or send text messages or fuck LinkedIn connections ever again. Fallows says we shouldn’t put anything in an e-mail we wouldn’t want our boss to see! Kaylan says there’s no such thing as privacy anymore! Sullivan says no public figure is safe from scandal!

I say we all need to grow up. If we’ve learned anything in the past 50 years, as the press has peered with increasing enthusiasm into the Jockeys of our public figures, it’s that nobody’s clean, nobody’s sinless, nobody’s even all that nice. Social media and the internet have opened the fly even further.

Instead of reconstructing a bygone era when it was easier for public figures to hide who they really are, we need a common understanding of morality and social norms that allow us to separate ‘violation of the public trust’ from ‘meh, everyone does it’. In other words, we need to stop caring. 

We’re shocked every time a politician or  celebrity appears in a sex tape, posts naked photos online, admits to some exotic fetish, etcetera. That shock, though, is a relic, an appendage of the belief that not that many people are doing such things. We gasp at sexual shenanigans under the assumption that they represent extreme human behavior.

And, increasingly, they don’t. I sort of hope that in 50 years we’ll live in an American where most people have ChatRouletted, possess self-taken naked pictures, own their weird sexual tastes, reveal their open marriages. Moral outrage isn’t so much you shouldn’t be doing this as it is nobody else is. Once we can assume everyone is doing these things, we won’t have to pretend to be shocked by them anymore. 

If the internet means losing our privacy, maybe losing our privacy means hiding less of ourselves. Shine enough light and the shadows disappear. I hope that, as our eyes adjust, we’ll realize they were never really shadows at all.

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No, Facebook Isn’t Making You Lonely. But It Is Making You An Asshole.

It always bugs me when people complain about Facebook, like ‘argh people with kids always post pictures of their kids’ or ‘Everyone puts their lame political opinions or what they had for breakfast.’

I always want to ask these people, Is this your first time having friends? Hearing about the short-term (Cheerios!) and long-term (children!) events that happen in their lives is sort of the qualifying definition of the term. If you are truly so unconcerned with the thoughts and experiences that a particular individual finds meaningful, then you should not only delete them from facebook, but you should run them over with your car.

For everyone else, their minutiae and their milestones aren’t an obstacle to friendship, they’re the reason for one.

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What If Social Media Makes You Smarter?

Every year I read Dave Eggers’s ‘Best American Nonrequired Reading.’ It’s a collection of essays, articles, speeches and comics with no thematic similarities other than that they’re all awesome.

The 2011 edition includes a speech by William Deresiewicz (whoever that is) to The United States Military Academy at West Point called ‘Solitude and Leadership’. For some reason, this passage made me feel simultaneously guilty and inspired:

A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked.

The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there.

In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: The more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself. […]

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. […]

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all of the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea.

By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, the defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.  

I really struggle with this. I have the attention span of a fruit fly, and whenever I’m in a situation where stimulus isn’t readily available—waiting in line, riding the bus—I usually create my own by reading a book or listening to a podcast. It’s vanishingly rare for me to just sit there and think. 

I had an unpleasant airport experience the other day in which I basically waited around for about five hours without knowing whether I would be leaving Argentina or would have to stay another day. If I wasn’t reading this essay collection, Deresiewicz’s among them, I would have been round-and-round fixating on my immediate surroundings—Am I going to get a flight? Will my luggage be there when I arrive? Should I change my currency now, or should I wait until a departure time is announced? Blah Blah Blah. Without stimulus, my brain skips analysis and goes straight to anxiety.

It’s in those types of situations that I find I need new ideas and stories the most. Absorbing new information prevents me from pointlessly fixating on my immediate surroundings.  It’s become kind of a compulsion: The bus is an hour late? Where’s my earbuds?!

What Deresiewicz is saying is that information isn’t osmosis. You can’t just absorb ideas and forget about them until the next flight delay. Information has to be summarized, analysed and discussed to have any effect.

In that excerpt, I edited out a sentence where Deresiewicz says ‘You simply cannot [think for yourself] in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod’.

While its probably true that constant interruption of any kind is bad for concentration, I disagree with the implication that social media and the internet are keeping us from deeply engaging with new ideas.

Personally, when I put down my book or pop out by earbuds, I don’t begin a systematic analysis of the information I’ve just absorbed. I just fixate on my immediate surroundings and start gazing ahead in my day until I find something to be anxious about — What am I going to have for dinner? Will it rain while I’m biking home? Etc.

The only way I can concentrate on an idea is to reconfigure it for a conversation, an e-mail or, yes, a fucking Tweet.

Summarizing an idea for a specific target audience (a whip-smart friend, a simpleton co-worker, an anonymous blog commenter) is how a lot of us discover what and how we think.  If you needed to sum up John Rawls’s ‘Theory of Justice’ in 140 characters, you’d have to think pretty hard about it. If you wanted to tell all your Facebook friends why you liked reading Moby Dick and they would too, you’d have to have a reasonably good grasp of it.

I agree with Deresiewicz that concentration, and the deliberate solitude that implies, is an important characteristic in a leader. But technology doesn’t prevent us from concentrating. It forces us to.

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Journalism Has Genres Too

I reorganized my bookmarks today. Four years of promiscuous ctrl+d-ing has left me with an disheveled list of names and urls, most of which I seldom read anymore or don’t remember ever liking.

As I sorted them into categories, I found the experience a bit depressing. Every publication, website and blog is a source of information. When you’re deleting them, you’re essentially saying ‘I can’t be bothered to hear what they want to tell me.’

Even more depressing is confronting what you actually use each of your bookmarks for. The internet has an essentially unlimited capacity to tell you the same thing over and over. News blogs recapitulate the same information. Entertainment blogs ‘analyse’ the same press releases.

Looking at your history and curating a list of your favorite information sources is essentially a blueprint for the kind of person you are. Do you want a brief, snarky take on American politics? Feminist analysis of celebrity gossip? Gay album reviews?

Lately I’ve been feeling like unlimited reading options has turned literature into music. If it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, I want to listen to Low Roar or Portishead. If I’m about to go out dancing, I want to listen to Rye Rye or The Avalanches.

In the same way, early in the morning I want to read a website that gives me sober, straightforward news, something Reutersy. At work I want something I can read, digest and forget in about 15 minutes. On weeknights I want a site that tells me something I didn’t know before or shows me something I knew in a new way.

This concept isn’t anything new, obviously. The written word, from newspapers to magazines to novels, have always set a particular tone, and we always choose to read something that reflect ourselves back at us.

What I’ve been struck by lately, though, is that I also have moods for content. I want to read an article about how stupid libertarians are. Or I want a minority to tell me that they’re empowered. Or I want to read a blog where someone tells me that my favorite TV shows are their favorites too.

The internet allows us to cultivate not only the facts we get and the conclusions we draw, but our emotional reactions too. What ever I feel like feeling–confirmation, outrage, optimism, apocalypse–I can access it instantly.

In the end, I just sorted my favorites into ‘heavy’ and ‘light’. The sites contained in both of them give me information. But one group plays me something I haven’t heard before, and the other just repeats the same old melody.

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Check your Facebook privacy settings

This is really well put:

I suspect that while Zuckerberg spins publicity as a social good, he actually believes it’s a moral one. It’s a theme that’s become pretty common among execs of data-collecting, data-publicizing companies: making it so that anything anyone does can be seen by anyone they know is a way of keeping them honest. Check out this quote he gave David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, in an interview:

“The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Easy for Mark Zuckerberg to say. He’s a white, cisgendered, presumably straight male who went to Exeter and Harvard and has only ever been his own boss. It’s fair to say that he’s been on the short end of a power dynamic much less frequently than the overwhelming majority of his users. The notion that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” is the sentiment of someone who’s never had to code-switch, someone who’s never had to be in the closet for fear of getting kicked out of the house, someone who’s familiar with the world of white-collar “networking” in which bosses are expected to have semi-social bonds with their employees rather than the world of enforced hierarchy in which bosses are on the lookout for off-the-job indiscretions to punish or exploit. For many, many people, having more than one identity isn’t a sign of “lack of integrity” because it’s not even really a personal choice. It’s the only way to survive in a world that isn’t always perfectly willing to accept and respect them for who they are.

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World welcomes first YouTube casualty

Have you guys seen the clip of the Japanese hidden-camera show where a dude is tricked into thinking that a sniper is picking off everyone else in the room? It's pretty great huh.

You can never really say how you would react to extreme, surreal stress, but six years after the invention of YouTube, I can't help but think that the first time something genuinely terrible happens to me, my first reaction will be 'OK, where's the pinhole camera, asshole?'

Come to think of it, this is probably how I will die. Someone's gonna come into a subway car waving a handgun around and I'll yell 'Cut! Worst Punk'd'ing ever!' and get shot. The only ones screaming will be people who never upgraded from dial-up.

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Wait, what?

An interesting blog post, followed by interesting comments? What is this, a BBS?

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Totally agree

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For a long while—from about the late '80s to the late-middle '90s—carrying a mobile phone seemed like a haughty affectation. But as more people got phones, they became more useful for everyone—and then one day enough people had cell phones that everyone began to assume that you did, too. Your friends stopped prearranging where they would meet up on Saturday night because it was assumed that everyone would call from wherever they were to find out what was going on. From that moment on, it became an affectation not to carry a mobile phone; they'd grown so deeply entwined with modern life that the only reason to be without one was to make a statement by abstaining. Facebook is now at that same point—whether or not you intend it, you're saying something by staying away.

Seriously.

Every generation has the Thing that is going to lead to the End of Social Interaction as We Know It. Sixty years ago, it was the telephone. Then it was television. Then it was video games. Then it was the internet and chat rooms (remember Prodigy?). Now it's social networking sites.
 

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Look, humans aren't going to stop making friends or falling in love or making small talk or inflicting drama upon one another anytime soon. The way that we do it will change (I'm sure our generation will be bitching about the iTelepathy in 50 years), but the human need for companionship is not under any kind of threat.

On the contrary, tools such as Facebook and cell phones have made our lives easier and vastly expanded our ability to choose our friends upon wider criteria than their geographic location, social class or profession. Old people are just pissed off cuz they haven't figured out how to digitize their polaroids.  

That, and you wrote all your Christmas thank-you notes on your relatives' Walls.

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